Book Review: Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel

Prepared by Gena Philibert-Ortega.

About four years ago someone suggested I read Jeannette Wall's book, The Glass Castle. I initially said, "No, thank you," since her story of a dysfunctional family did not interest me. The person insisted and handed me the book. So out of politeness I read it and soon found myself mesmerized by Jeanette's tale of parents who were eccentric beyond words. They raise their children in a nomadic, often homeless, impoverished life. A tale of kids who, in this day, would probably be removed from their home and placed with a foster family in the name of negligence. Her story is one that sticks with you. When anyone mentions the book, the first thought I have is reading about the time Jeanette's family moved and stuck the kids, including a baby in the back of the U-Haul. No, not the back seat, but the back where you put your stuff. This book leaves you wondering why on earth would parents, and especially her mother, who seemed "normal," let this happen?

The answer is found in Jeanette's second book, Half Broke Horses. This book chronicles her maternal grandmother's life. However, instead of basing the tale on research, as her grandmother died when she was 8 years old, she uses her mother's oral history of her grandmother's life as the basis for the book.

While I hungered for a bibliography and endnotes, since I enjoy those parts of a book, this treatment of her family is a novelized account of her grandmother's life, and what a life it was. Having read The Glass Castle and not understanding why her parents were the way they were, Half Broke Horses gives you that aha moment and really shows how many traits are inherited. We are truly the sum of those who come before us.

I'm not going to provide too much information about the book. It's a great book, one you want to just sit down and read in a day or so. I like the idea of taking those family stories and weaving a novel together. What a great way to learn about your family history.

Wall's grandmother was a true trailblazer; she taught school starting at 15 years of age and she rode her horse, by herself, across New Mexico and Arizona to her first job. Can you imagine letting your 15 year old daughter ride across 2 states, by herself? It took her about 20 days, with some money, a bedroll and a gun. (This was in the early 1900's). She later travels to Chicago by herself and works as a domestic. Eventually, traveling back to Arizona, she becomes a school teacher again and marries Jim Smith, the son of Mormon pioneer, Lot Smith.

Though I wish there was more genealogy research used in writing this book, she did refer to a family history book and a book about Lot Smith, to confirm some details: it is a great example of what you can do with those family stories. Genealogists who lack the documentation that fills in the gaps of an ancestor's life may want to consider writing a novel-like account that incorporates social history and what facts are available. Wall's book proves that the everyday person's life is interesting.

Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls. A True-Life Novel. New York: Scribner, 2009.

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