Book Review: Half-Broke Horses

After reading The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir of her dysfunctional, impoverished childhood, you can’t help but have certain expectations of her latest book, Half-Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. You want to know why her mother, Rose Mary Walls, turned out to be such a neglectful, bereft parent. You want to know why in the world Rose Mary would marry such a ne`er do well. Walls, however, holds these questions at bay with an almost unbelievable story of her grandmother, Lily Casey, told in first-person. 

Members of the Plaza’s Barista Book Group, which read this book in January, all agreed that Lily Casey was really something else. The opening of the book gives you quick insight into the indomitable spirit of Lily Casey, who at 8-years-old is ushering her siblings into a tree to protect them from an oncoming flood. Lily devises a game to keep them awake throughout the night until the flood waters subside.  

Young Lily runs the family ranch and trains horses as well as her father. At barely 13 years of age, she travels for over a month, alone on horseback, to teach at a rural school. In Lily’s world, born and bred in West Texas, you suck up tears, fears, & other inconveniences to do what needs to be done to survive. Thus, Lily's telling of her story, while remarkable to the reader, is told in a very matter-of-fact way. 

When she encounters setbacks, such as falling for a man who turns out to have another family, losing a very close adulthood friend to a work mishap, and losing her sister to suicide, Lily's telling of these events makes it appear as if she had simply suffered from a mild case of indigestion. Yet, the unconventional means by which Lily manages her life is remarkable. 

She chooses her second husband when she decides to have children, asking him for his hand in marriage. She learns to fly a plane, sells bootleg whiskey to keep her house, becomes both the bus driver and the teacher to raise money to buy a ranch.  She encourages her husband to facilitate the purchase of a bulldozer to create a dam to capture water for their Arizona ranch. She is able to out-gamble most men and tame any horse. 

Lily's half-broke horse in life turns out to be her daughter, Rose Mary. Lily is never quite able to control her daughter, whose outlook on life is laissez-faire. Rose Mary isn't interested in planning her life; she is an artist who only wants to paint and allow life to happen as it may. This is the point in the book where if you have read The Glass Castle, you can’t help but wonder about the affect Lily Casey's larger-than-life personality had on her daughter.

Our book club had much discussion about whether Lily was the cause of Rose Mary becoming such an irresponsible adult. Lily was very controlling and not very nurturing, and Rose Mary seemed to rebel against everything her mother stood for. 

Those of us who had read The Glass Castle felt that Walls was giving an explanation of sorts for her mother's odd behavior by telling Lily's story. However, The GlassCastle aside, the story of Lily Casey in Half-Broke Horses is a fascinating read. 

About the Author

Sherida Harris is a library technical assistant at the Plaza Branch. To join the Barista’s Book Group, e-mail her at or call 816.701.3481. The club's February selection is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a 2011 Adult Winter Reading Program book.