Jeannette Walls simultaneously amazed and horrified readers with her best-selling memoir The Glass Castle, and although her newest "true-life novel" - Half Broke Horses - is not as gripping, it is a satisfying prequel to the Casey-Walls legacy.
The Glass Castle, which focuses on Walls' own life, follows her from the age of 3, when as an independent toddler she burned herself severely while making a hot dog, to the present, in which she works as a journalist for MSNBC.
Readers journey with her family from coast to coast - sometimes in a home but often in a shack, and always without a steady income of money or necessities. When driving through the desert, Walls recalls once when they turned a sharp corner and the back door opened, dumping her out of the car. After hours of waiting, her family finally returned to pick her up, not even realizing she had been gone. As disaster follows disaster, it is impossible to put the book down, but it begs the question: how could any parents raise children like this?
Half Broke Horses is the story of Jeannette Walls's maternal grandmother, Lily Casey. A fantastically driven woman, Lily works for everything she gets and, excuse the cliché, lives something close to the American dream.
Like The Glass Castle, Half Broke Horses starts off with an example of the woman the narrator will become. In this case, young Lily's quick thinking saves her and her siblings from a flash flood. From there on, readers see Lily's consistent determination to survive and get what she deserves.
Of course there are plenty of hardships along the way: unsupportive parents, a scam of a marriage and a predictably free spirited daughter. Lily's adventures, however, far outweigh the periods of trouble. Excelling when sent away to school, she finds that the life on the farm that she grew up on is not the future she wants. Rather, Lily becomes a teacher, going to remote rural towns with children in need of an education and doing her best to shape them.
Lily does eventually settle down and start a family on a ranch of her own, and Jeannette's own mother, Rosemary, enters the picture. Seeing the way Rosemary grows answers the multitude of questions that arise in The Glass Castle, and it becomes clear how she turned into the mother she did.
Although much more grounded than her daughter, Lily isn't without a thrill-seeking side as well. From breaking horses to flying planes and bootlegging alcohol to dominating the poker table, Lily unwittingly imbeds her own fearlessness into Rosemary.
It's almost a relief to read Half Broke Horses after The Glass Castle; at least the essence behind the insanity becomes clear, or at least, less vague. But even standing on its own, Half Broke Horses is a solid read.
Lily herself and the range of characters she meets paint an image of the past that combines a sense of the romantic frontier and the hard work every man and woman must do to survive. Riveting and moving, Lily Casey is an inspiration.