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January 12, 2013

“Half Broke Horses”

by Anne Paddock

Painting the word “dog” on the side of a pig don’t make a pig a dog.

These words were spoken to Lily Casey Smith, the resourceful, no-nonsense heroine in Half Broke Horses by her husband, Jim Smith after she buys a used hearse and paints the words “School Bus” on the side. That hearse may not have technically been a school bus but for Lily – who could see past its intended purpose and envision piling children in the back – those painted on words let the world know she was a force to be reckoned with.  If she wanted a hearse to be a school bus, by God it was going to be a school bus.

Half Broke Horses by Jeanette Walls is depicted as a true-life novel of the author’s grandmother, Lily Casey Smith – a courageous, fiercely independent woman born at the turn of the 20th century in a dirt dugout in western Texas. The oldest child among three siblings, Lily is a clever but practical girl who believes in getting things done starting at age six when she learns to break horses with her father by her side. By the time she is ten, she proves herself capable by saving her younger siblings from a flash flood – hurling them into a tree, making them hold on to the branches until the waters subsided. Knowing her brother will inherit the family farm because he is the only male child, Lily realizes her career choices are limited to teaching, nursing, or the convent so at age 15 she leaves home traveling 500 miles on her horse, Patches to teach school in a remote frontier town during the World War I years.

Lily returns to the family farm a few years later but stays only briefly choosing instead to move to Chicago to pursue a better life. With few opportunities for a woman, Lily is forced to take work as a maid, which makes her deeply unhappy. She marries only to find out her husband is a bigamist which drives her out of Chicago and back to teaching in remote rural towns. It is in one of these towns she meets Jim Smith, one of the 52 descendants of Lot Smith, one of Brigham Young’s chief lieutenants. Lily marries Jim and they settle into a life together that takes them from near bankruptcy to prosperity enduring a multitude of ups and downs along the way.

Told in the first person by the author, Walls tells the story of her grandmother’s life as if it was her own life story which lends authenticity to the novel. At times hilarious and at other times heartbreaking, Half Broke Horses is the story of a life well lived. Walls grew up  listening to her mother, Rosemary recall stories of her own mother’s life and never forgot what she was told. Although Lily died when the author was eight years old, Walls used her memories, stories passed down from older generations, and records to fill in the blanks of one woman’s very adventurous life. A story that reminds the reader the difference between a wild horse and a broken horse is a half-broken horse – an important distinction that is well worth knowing in life.

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