Editor’s note: Anita Paddock’s review of books we should read are scheduled to appear on the second and fourth Friday of each month. Enjoy.
review by Anita Paddock
What a story this is! And what a tough woman Lily Casey Smith was!
Written by the author of “Glass Castle,” a memoir about a dysfunctional family, that was so well-written and so beautifully told that it was printed in 23 languages, this true life novel tells the story of Lily Casey Smith, the maternal grandmother of Jeannette Walls.
Lily, the oldest of three children, a boy and two girls, was born in a dugout in west Texas in 1901. Her mother was a dainty woman who wouldn’t venture outdoors unless her face was covered by a linen cloth to protect her from the sun and wind. Helen, the youngest, was most like her mother, and neither was inclined to help with any outside chores.
Lily was most like her daddy, a man who had spent time in prison (wrongly, he insisted) for killing a man over water rights in New Mexico. He moved to Texas to lie low for a while, before moving his family back to New Mexico.
Kicked in the head by a horse when just a boy, Lily’s daddy walked and talked funny and was often ridiculed. His speech was such gibberish that only members of his family could understand him. He raised horses and trained them as carriage horses and taught Lily to train the horses as well.
“Always think like a horse,” he told her. “If you can make a horse think you’re his protector, he’ll do what you say every time.”
Horses that weren’t trained properly were called half broke. And they reacted much like people who are only half broke. This novel is about such a family.
Knowing that her brother would one day own the ranch because he was the rightful heir, Lily left home when she was 15, riding her horse, Patches, for 300 miles to her first teaching job. She discovered that she had a gift for teaching, but because of her age and the lack of a formal education, she only was able to work temporarily, here and there.
She returned home, worked on the ranch with the horses again, and decided she wanted more adventure. With the money she had saved while teaching, she took the train to Chicago. There she worked as a maid for a rich family, met a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman, and married. When she found out that her husband already had a wife and four children and had cleaned out their savings account, she returned to the ranch.
She was the best horse trainer around, and she won money racing on Sundays. Another teaching job came available, and she rode Patches another 300 miles to another destination. Her sister Helen, who had left to make her mark in Hollywood, returned pregnant and distraught. She hanged herself, rather than facing the prospect of raising a baby alone.
By now, Lily, was longing for a baby of her own, so she set out to find a suitable husband. She met and married an older man, Big Jim Smith, and together they ran a big ranch in Arizona that was owned by English investors.
To this marriage, Little Jim and Rosemary were born. She was the free spirited one, the half broke one, who, with a college education from Arizona State, couldn’t be properly trained, and would end up eating out of garbage cans and sleeping in cars, with her children surviving the best they could.
Rosemary is the author’s mother, the one Jeannette Walls wrote about in her memoir.
It is not necessary to read Glass Castle before reading Half Broke Horses. The story of Lily and the life she led is fodder enough for the hungriest of readers. It’s just a little more of an “Oh, wow!” to know the backgrounds of three generations of women who struggled to survive.
Since so much of this novel revolved around horses, I called upon Magdy Ghobrial, a Christian Egyptian cowboy who makes his home on a ranch in Cameron, Okla., where he owns and rides horses.
Born in the shadows of the pyramids, he immigrated to this country with his parents. As a civil engineer, he traveled the United States, eventually landing in Oklahoma.
“I fell in love with the sweetness of this area,” Magdy says. “Nobody rushed me. This was also the first place where I could stay long enough to own a horse of my own.”
When asked about a half broke horse, he explains that it would be the most dangerous to own.
“You’d never know what it was going to do. A million dollar-perfect horse would be one that was smart and beautiful and energetic, but would also be gentle enough to allow a child to ride on his back.”
Magdy writes poetry and is working on a book of essays about the Americans he has met since moving here. The working title is “The Americans I Know.”
One of his favorite books was one loaned to him by a 93-year-old woman. “Hello Stranger” was the title, but he can’t remember the author.
“It just spoke to me.”
He gave his father a copy of “The Greatest Generation” by Tom Brokaw. Even though his father grew up on the other side of the world from those that Brokaw wrote about, he feels like his father was a part of that great generation.
Contact Anita at firstname.lastname@example.org