Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls

You probably read her memoir, The Glass Castle, and now Jeanette Walls is back with a fictionalized story about her grandmother Lily. Lily is a hard, rowdy woman who wasn’t afraid to go after what she wanted in a time that these activities weren’t seen as lady-like nor appropriate.

The story follows as she grows up in west Texas and then moves on to Arizona to teach — without her 8th grade education. When Lily gets fired thanks to the end of the war, she chooses to move to Chicago and start a life there. But when she married a two-timing louse, she relocates again, back to her wild ways in the desert southwest.

She eventually marries a stable man and has a couple of children, but she’ll never be broke of her wild ways, and the rest of the story tells of other adventures she and her family have.

Half Broke Horses is told in short vignettes, with each chapter being just a page or two long. It’s very episodic, though for the first 2/3 of the book, there is a great flow between the stories. I felt like the last 1/3 of the book, however, fell completely apart as Wells tried to wrap up the entire adulthood of Lily in fewer pages than she had spent describing her childhood. Within four pages, she’d gone from having young children to fighting with a teenage daughter to Wells being born. Too much too quickly for me.

I wasn’t a big fan of this book. I felt like the fictionalization really made the story boring. Wells had a fantastic concept and the character of Lily was interesting, but by fictionalizing the story, it was devoid of any emotion. Additionally, the episodic nature further disjointed the story in a way that I found Lily nothing more than an interesting character — I never had feelings for her one way or another, but rather just went with her.

I didn’t get quite the sense of how wild a character she was, either. I felt like the book was billed as much more of a wild west girl who really broke horses and bucked the tradition, but it seemed to me by fictionalizing the story, it just fell really, really flat. I’ve read more interesting fiction with more interesting female characters who did this. I would have loved this a lot more if this were more biographical.

Like The Glass Castle, I felt distanced from the book. As a reader, I never got fully absorbed in either story, and the more I think about it, I believe it’s Walls’s style. She builds a wall around her story that as a reader, I don’t like. For other readers, this works well because the subjects are real and therefore not always easily accessible or relatable.

I suspect this might get picked up as a film down the road: it’s episodic and fitting to cinematic molding; it’s Jeanette Walls who has proven to be popular; and the story IS interesting. I feel like the help it could get with an artistic director will elevate it and make it more engaging and realistic.

I wonder how hard this story would have been to make biographical, rather than fictional. Walls states in an end note that her original intent was to write about her mother, but her mother insisted that her mother, Lily, was the real interesting one. I wonder how much of the decision to fictionalize came from the publisher, rather than her original intent? Or if it was her intent to do it all along, how much came from her worry to be seen as another James Frey or similar memoirist accused of making it all up?

I believe readers know not everything in a biography or memoir is going to be 100% true (how can it be?). I sure hope it wasn’t done this way to convenience the reader from thinking — there is a good story here, but I just had a hard time connecting and reveling in it knowing that it never could be fully realized as a fictional novel.

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  1. says

    I just saw Jeannette Walls speak today at the Texas Book Festival. What is interesting is that she did originally intend Half Broke Horses to be nonfiction. She wrote it from Lily's POV and "filled in" the pieces she couldn't research to start off with, because it was easier to get it out that way. When she took it to her editor, she told him/her that she intended to remove the made-up bits and switch it to a third-person POV, but her editor told her to leave it as it was and they'd market it as fiction. I haven't read the book but my guess is that it is mostly nonfiction.

    I've just begun The Glass Castle, after my sister and mom both urged me to read it, and I really am enjoying it. I like her style, and that's a big factor in whether or not I will enjoy memoirs, or nonfiction in general.

    Jeannette Walls is also a WONDERFUL speaker. I was pretty impressed.

  2. says

    That's really interesting to hear now! I think the whole notion of marketing it as fiction is both interesting and troubling. I just wish she'd gone full force non-fiction on it to make it more….believable? I think it's believable as fiction, no doubt, but it just didn't capture me in the way it would as non-fiction.

    I read The Glass Castle this summer, and while I wasn't super impressed with the writing and I felt distanced, I did like the story (if you can like such a sad story). I think Walls has a fantastic array of stories within her from just her family life alone, and I definitely plan on reading whatever she cooks up next.

    I'd love to hear her speak. Perhaps that connection will happen!

  3. says

    While I liked Half Broke Horses better than you did, it is a weird concept (writing in 1st person the story of a real person). I think I liked it, but I might have preferred a more biographical account.

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