Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa or Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. Destined to become a classic, it will transfix readers everywhere.
“Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did.” So begins the story of Lily Casey Smith, Jeannette Walls’s no-nonsense, resourceful, and spectacularly compelling grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town—riding five hundred miles on her pony, alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane. And, with her husband, Jim, she ran a vast ranch in Arizona. She raised two children, one who is Jeannette’s memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in The Glass Castle.
Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds—against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn’t fit the mold. Rosemary Smith Walls always told Jeannette that she was like her grandmother, and in this true-life novel, Jeannette Walls channels that kindred spirit. Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa or Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. Destined to become a classic, it will transfix readers everywhere.
This reading group guide forHalf Broke Horsesincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Jeannette Walls’s grandmother Lily Casey Smith is the kind of woman who built this country: resourceful, hardworking, and smart. Full of spunk and with a strong will to do whatever she puts her mind to, she can break a wild horse by the time she is six years old. At age fifteen, she leaves home to teach in a frontier town, riding five hundred miles across New Mexico with nothing but her pony for company and her pearl-handled revolver for protection. She tries living and working in Chicago, where she meets her first husband, but betrayal and loss soon drive her back to ranch life—caring for livestock and respecting the land are what she does best. Together, she and her second husband manage a 180,000-acre ranch and Lily uses her incredible pluck and ingenuity to supplement their meager income. They raise two children, one of whom is Jeannette Walls’s mother, Rosemary Smith Walls. With little more than Lily’s resourcefulness to guide the way, the family will weather tornadoes, droughts, floods, personal tragedy, and the Great Depression. In this tale of extreme hardship emerges a story of one woman whose spirit can’t be broken.
Questions for Discussion
1. Jeannette Walls has said that she tried writing this book in the third person but that it didn’t work for her. Do you think you are closer to Lily because you get her story in her own voice? Did you “see” Lily Casey Smith as real? What is your response to the first person voice of the book?
2. When Lily’s father dies, she and Rosemary drive his body from Tucson back to the ranch in West Texas. Rosemary is embarrassed to be seen driving with a corpse and ducks down in the car when they stop at a red light (pg. 198). “Life’s too short, honey,” Lily tells Rosemary, “to worry what other people think of you.” What does Lily’s reaction to this behavior show about her character? Does she give much credence to what other people think of her? What effect do you think her mother’s attitude had on Rosemary?
3. Following Helen’s suicide, Lily says, “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they're doing is passing it on to those they leave behind” (pg. 113). Do you agree with this statement?
4. Lily seems willing to sacrifice everything to defend her principles and the rights of others. On more than one occasion, she is fired from a teaching position for refusing to back down from what she believes in. Do you applaud Lily’s moral conviction in these instances? Or did you hope that Lily would learn to compromise?
5. Lily has high expectations for her children, from sending them off to boarding school despite their protests to enforcing strict rules for keeping animals as pets. When Rosemary falls in love with a wild horse and asks her mother if she can keep it, Lily replies, “The last thing we need around here is another half-broke horse” (pg. 190). How might this statement apply to Lily’s children as well? Are Lily’s expectations of her children particularly high or rather a reflection of the times? Why do you think this phrase was chosen as the title of the book?
6. When a group of Brooklyn ladies visits the ranch, Rosemary and Lily take them for a car ride they’ll never forget. Lily concludes their encounter by saying, “You ride, you got to know how to fall, and you drive, you got to know how to crash” (pg. 175). How does this statement apply to Lily’s life as a whole? What does she mean by knowing “how to fall”?
7. Discuss Lily’s husband Jim. How does his personality complement her strong nature?
8. While attempting to prevent the ranch from flooding, Lily tells Rosemary, “Do the best you can...That's all anyone can do.” Her instructions are echoed by Jim's declaration: “We did a good job—good as we could” (pg. 152). Why do you think Lily and Jim have both adopted this philosophy? To which other instances in their lives are they likely to have applied this rationale?
9. Lily comes off as tough and resilient, but there are moments in this book of vast heartbreak, where you see her façade crack. How does the author handle the death of Lily’s friend in Chicago? Her first husband’s duplicity? Her sister’s suicide? Her suspicions of her husband Jim?
10. Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true life novel.” In her author’s note, she explains why. Do you agree with this label? What do you think of the “true life” genre?
11. “Helen’s beauty, as far as I was concerned, had been a curse, and I resolved that I would never tell Rosemary she was beautiful” (pg. 119). Examine Lily’s relationship with her daughter, Rosemary, and, in The Glass Castle, Rosemary’s relationship with Jeannette. How does each generation try to compensate for the one before? How does each mother try to avoid the mistakes or pain imposed upon her by her own mother?
Questions for readers who have also read The Glass Castle
1. In Half Broke Horses, Lily’s father decides to bring her home from school so that he can use her tuition money to breed dogs. This instance of selfishness bears a close resemblance to Rex Walls’s behavior in The Glass Castle when he takes the money Jeannette’s sister has been saving to escape Welch, WV, and goes on a drinking binge. Over and over these men disappoint their children, and yet they are forgiven. Talk about the lack of bitterness in both of these books. How do the children rationalize their parents’ behavior?
2. “There was a big difference between needing things and wanting things—though a lot of people had trouble telling the two apart—and at the ranch, I could see, we’d have pretty much everything we’d need but precious little else” (pg. 134–5). How might this description refer to Lily’s life as a whole? What effect did growing up without much have on Rosemary Walls, whom we learn more about in The Glass Castle?
3. Both The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses open with a climactic event from the main character’s childhood that has left a memorable impression on her. Compare each event and the narrators’ descriptions of the events. How do these retellings set the stage for what’s to come? Why do you think Walls chose to use them as the openings of both books?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Browse the Internet for a look at Jeannette Walls’s online presence. You may wish to read the extensive interview with her at http://gothamist.com/2005/05/27/jeannette_walls_author_the_glass_castle_gossip_columnist_msnbccom.php or watch the video of her appearance on the Stephen Colbert show at http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/85068/april-10-2007/jeannette-walls.
2. Lily’s life takes her to many places, from the ranches of her childhood to the frontier towns where she was a teacher. Bring a map of the western United States to your book club meeting and map out the locations of Lily’s life as a group. Or, give a copy of the map to each reader in advance so he or she can fill it out as they read.
3. Rent a movie to learn more about Billy the Kid, who was Lily’s father's hero. You may wish to rent the 1938 film Billy the Kid Outlawed or take a look at the Discovery Channel 2007 special Billy the Kid: Unmasked, which uses DNA to reveal the Kid’s true identity. Both are available via Netflix or at your local video store. Don't forget how Lily and Jim felt about the way cowboys were portrayed in the movies!
Jeannette Walls graduated from Barnard College and was a journalist in New York. Her memoir, The Glass Castle, has been a New York Times bestseller for more than six years. She is also the author of the instant New York Times bestsellers The Silver Star and Half Broke Horses, which was named one of the ten best books of 2009 by the editors of The New York Times Book Review. Walls lives in rural Virginia with her husband, the writer John Taylor.
“Jeannette Walls . . . once again proves that the combination of gifted storyteller with great stories is both rare and intoxicating."--The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“[An] eloquent tribute to a pragmatic heroine . . . A powerhouse—fast-moving, fearless and impossible to forget.”—Michelle Green, People
[Jeannette Walls is] the third generation of a line of indomitable women whose paths she has inscribed on the permanent record, enriching the common legend of our American past.”—Liesl Schillinger, New York Times Book Review (cover review)