Half Broke Horses

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Read 02/11/2017-05/11/2017

Rating: 3 stars

I chose this book for Arizona on my US Reading Challenge. It has good scores on both Goodreads and LibraryThing, and a review in the New York Times praised it for its reminder of what life was like for many in the western states of the US from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. The publisher, Simon and Schuster, has this to say:

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.

Wow, right? Maybe I missed something, but I found Walls’ attempt to novelise her, admittedly remarkable, grandmother’s life story as though her grandmother were speaking it a little like storytime for a class of eight year olds. It was easy to read, and revealing about life in the American West in the first decades of the 20th century, and I didn’t dislike it. I wasn’t transfixed, though, or riveted. To me, it felt as though Walls was trying too hard to write an alternative Little House on the Prairie.

Lily Casey Smith was born in a dugout in West Texas. Her dad grew up in New Mexico, but fled to West Texas when he was accused of murdering a neighbouring settler. Her dad sounds a complex character. As a boy, he was kicked in the head by a horse and suffered a stroke that left the right side of his body partially paralysed and also affected his speech. An intelligent man, with a love of science, history and language, he struggled against other people’s misconception that he was lacking intelligence, and wrote eloquent letters to politicians and newspaper editors about the topics that agitated him. He was also obsessed with Billy the Kid, claiming to have met him when he was on the run and needed a fresh horse. Pa Casey’s take on why the Kid got a bad reputation sounds very Trumpian to me:

“History gets written by the winners,” he said, “and when the crooks win, you get crooked history.”

In contrast, Lily’s mother was a refined lady from California who despaired of her eldest daughter’s practicality and gumption. She struggled with ranch life. Her struggle is symbolised by a carved walnut headboard that is rescued from each disaster that ruins the place they are living in.

Mom worried about things like her daughters catching the right husband. She was concerned with what she called”properties”. Mom had furnished our dugout with some real finery, including an Oriental rug, a chaise longue with lace doily, velvet curtains that we hung on the walls to make it look like we had more windows, a silver serving set, and a carved walnut headboard that her parents had brought with them from back east when they moved to California. Mom treasured that headboard and said it was the only thing that allowed her to sleep at night because it reminded her of the civilised world.

Between her dad, who relies on her to help him run the ranch and does all he can to stop her finding her own way in life, and her mum, whose only thought is to see her married off, Lily manages to emerge as an autonomous woman. I liked her for that. The making of her comes when she passes the government test for teachers to fill the gap left by America’s involvement in the First World War and, aged fifteen, sets off on a six hundred mile journey to Arizona to teach in a school in a town called Red Lake.

The book flies through Lily’s life, broken down into short passages of a handful of pages within named sections that focus on key moments, where Lily’s path takes a turn in direction. Lily isn’t always likeable, but she usually means well. Very occasionally, her doggedness turns into cussedness. She loses numerous jobs because she firmly believes that she knows what’s best for everyone, and refuses to wind her neck in. There’s having a strong belief in your own rules for life, and then there’s being a pig-headed idiot. I wanted to slap her when she roped her daughter into spying on her loyal, dependable husband because of her lack of trust in him.

This is the third book I’ve read recently that features pioneers in the US. Each one has made me think about what they were doing and how I feel about it. All of them were from Europe, many from my part of the world, so on one level I have a sense of admiration that they would choose to leave their lives in Europe for the unknown of the American West, often undergoing hardships as bad as, if not worse than, those they were leaving behind. On a different level, though, I feel angry at the entitlement they felt to ‘discover’ land that was already someone’s home, and to claim it as their own, displacing the indigenous population or wiping it out. This has made me wonder what it is about Europeans that makes us such wanderers, such empire builders. Why haven’t other peoples done the same? Why didn’t the Native Americans or the South American peoples, the Inuit or the Maori, the African or the Aboriginal peoples do the same? What is it about us that makes us build the technology to take us as far away from our origins as we can travel? Why aren’t we happy where we begin? Lily Casey Smith embodies that self-assured yet blindly arrogant spirit, and yet the story of her life didn’t ever reveal why she felt or acted the way she did.

Half Broke Horses was an entertaining read, but I don’t feel as though I gained much by reading it.

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