Jeanette Walls’s first memoire, The Glass Castle, published in 2005, tells of her childhood moving from one trashed town to the next, sleeping in cardboard boxes, and dealing with her intoxicated father and immature, unfocused mother. In her most recent book, Half-Broke Horses, which was published in 2009, Walls describes the similarly difficult life of her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey, through her grandmother’s eyes.
Throughout her youth, Casey followed the life lessons taught in the “Little House” series written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, who later inspired Walls as a child. Casey connected to the main character, Laura, and found similarities in their struggles.
Like Wilder, Casey lived in a rural area in a one-room dugout, where “scorpions, lizards, snakes, gophers, centipedes and moles wormed their way out of our walls and ceilings,” according to Walls.
Liesl Shillinger from The New York Times wrote that as Half-Broke Horses follows “the adventures of Lily Casey—mustang breaker, schoolteacher, ranch wife, bootlegger, poker player, racehorse rider, bush pilot and mother of two—Walls revisits the adrenaline-charged frontier background that gave her own mother a lifelong taste for vicissitude.”
Amidst her struggles with poverty, one of Casey’s most attractive qualities is the value she places on education. When a flashflood arises, Casey and her two younger siblings hide in a tree overnight, while Casey quizzes her siblings on their multiplication tables, vocabulary, capitals, states, and Presidents to keep them awake.
When they return home the next day, their mother claims they survived because she sent a guardian angel to save them. Exasperated, Casey tells her father they survived because she kept them awake and alert. Her father replies: “Well, darling… maybe the angel was you.”
Casey’s father evidently inspired her love of learning. Kicked by a horse at a young age, her father is partially paralyzed and left with a speech impediment for life. Nevertheless, as an avid reader and writer he continues to strive for the most in life He inspires teaches his children science, geometry, and reading, promising to send them to a formal school as soon as possible.
Half-Broke Horses intersects the Deerfield bubble when Casey’s father fulfills his promise, sending Casey and her brother to boarding school when Casey turns thirteen. At school, she discovers her zeal for teaching, and even after she leaves for financial reasons, she continues to struggle towards her life goal of becoming a teacher.
As a child, Casey felt bad for the penned up horses at a nearby ranch, saying, “They just want to be free.” Her mother responded, “In this life, hardly anyone gets to do what they want to do.” Ultimately, Casey proves her mother wrong when does achieve her goal, despite all odds.