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Half-Broke Horses: Advice from one tough lady

Jeannette Walls tells the story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, in her true-life novel, Half-Broke Horses. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the indomitable lady.

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A few months ago, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, (I wrote a quick synopsis in an earlier post) and she quickly became a voice in my head that lingered long after the last page.  Her exploration of the parent-child relationship fascinates me as does her ability to love her parents for who they are despite their flawed interpretation of parenting.  The opening scene is a recollection of her standing on a stool next to the stove cooking hot dogs in a pink tutu when she’s three years old.  She caught fire and spent weeks in the hospital covered in burns.  Her mother thought she should’ve been able to fix her own lunch.  

Completely sold on her narrative style, I picked up Half-Broke Horses, which I would’ve wanted to read even if I didn’t already know the author was brilliant.  I love all things equine, and there was a fair amount of the majesty and quiet loyalty of horses in this tale.  But the real centerpiece of the story is Lily Casey Smith, Walls’s maternal grandmother.  The book provides a sort of origin story to how Walls’s mother ends up being the kind of woman who lets her four-year-old cook her own hot dogs.  As she broadens her canvas to paint the picture of her grandmother's life and her mother's upbringing, she excavates a family history that is stranger than fiction, and even more engrossing.  

Lily’s life begins in a dugout mud hut in west Texas complete with scorpions, rattlesnakes, centipedes, and other critters which crawled out of the walls at random, often falling on her bed as she slept.  It is washed away in a flash flood from which she and her family narrowly escape.  

From there, we follow her childhood as she learns to break ranch horses, eventually leaving to pursue a career in teaching.  In 1916, she travels five hundred miles alone on horseback across a desert when she is only fifteen years old to her first teaching position in Arizona.  We watch her life events unfold, which involve unknowingly marrying a polygamist, gambling, racing horses, becoming an airplane pilot, bootlegging, running a 160,000-acre cattle ranch, surviving nature’s fury, and raising two kids.  

Lily’s extraordinary life is one of immense hardship which she meets with undeniable bravery.  She is resourceful and fearless, but not without her shortcomings, and Walls spins her tale with admiration but also transparency.  In sharp definition, we see a woman whose wild temper and cut-throat decisiveness are not without consequence, but her grit is the stuff of legend.  

Here are a few of my favorite words of wisdom from the story of one tough lady:

“Only difference between a traitor and a patriot is your perspective.”

“What Dad didn’t understand was that no matter how much he hated or feared the future, it was coming, and there was only one way to deal with it: by climbing aboard.”

“Horses were never wrong.  They always did what they did for a reason, and it was up to you to figure it out.”

“When someone’s wounded, the first order of business is to stop the bleeding.  You can figure out later how best to help them heal.”

“Of course [God] exists and of course he hears you.  He has the right to say no, you know.”

“There was a big difference between needing things and wanting things - though a lot of people had trouble telling the two apart - “

“I had never wanted someone to take care of me, but I found that I liked being married.  After so many years on my own, I was sharing my life for the first time, and it made the hard moments easier and the good moments better.”

“You could tell from the questions they asked that they knew what they didn’t know.”

“Life’s too short, honey, to worry what other people think of you.”

“I never met a kid I couldn’t teach.  Every kid was good at something, and the trick was to find out what it was, then use it to teach him everything else.”

“The most important thing in life is learning how to fall.”

“When God closes a window, he opens a door.  But it’s up to you to find it.”

Quoted material from Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls.  Scribner: 2009.

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