Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Half Broke, Half Full: Jeannette Walls's "Half Broke Horses"

Over dinner a few weeks ago, I was recapping the plot and style of Jeannette Walls's Half Broke Horses for my best friend. I explained the "Author's Note" at the end, in which Walls explains how the combination of oral family histories and the occasional loss of precise details led her to present the book as a novel instead of a straightforward history of her grandmother's life. My friend, half-jokingly, asked if that was thanks to James Frey, and I couldn't help but wonder if he was onto something. Granted, Walls is writing about deceased individuals, and there is really nothing scandalous about the adventures and exploits presented, but has this work (along with its subtitle "A True Life Novel") been embellished to the point of a written necessity? I'm not saying this is a bad thing--at no point, especially with recaps of word-for-word dialogue, will the reader assume that everything in the book is a cold, hard fact. And I'm not accusing Walls of any literary wrongdoing: it's a novel, and she is entitled to her artistic license. However, the book's themes and plotting lent themselves to the occasional misstep, and I couldn't help but wonder if Walls was doing too much or imagined too little.

"This book was originally meant to be about my mother's childhood growing up on a cattle ranch in Arizona. But as I talked to Mom about those years, she kept insisting that her mother was the one who had led the truly interesting life and that the book should be about Lily."

Lily Casey Smith, Walls's grandmother, is the narrator of her own life story, from her rural childhood to her adulthood, with the emphasis placed on her self-reliance, insistence on personal toughness, and a desire to do the right thing even in the face of adversity or the narrow-mindedness of the times. Lily's mother is a God-fearing, pious woman, and her father, beset by a faulty leg and a speech impediment, an armchair philosopher and a constant executor of his first amendment rights, with a life devoted to lawsuits, letters to newspaper editors, and a fascination with phonetics. Lily's own worldview is established early, and sets a foundation for the rest of her life.

"The way Mom saw it, women should let menfolk do the work because it made them feel more manly. That notion made sense only if you had a strong man willing to step up and get things done, and between Dad's gimp, Buster's elaborate excuses, and Apache's tendency to disappear, it was often up to me to keep the place from falling apart. But even when everyone was pitching in, we never got out from under all the work. I loved that ranch, though sometimes it did seem that instead of us owning the place, the place owned us (Walls 19)."

Lily engages in activities that occasionally defy early twentieth century notions of womanhood. She learns how to break horses. She eventually becomes a schoolteacher, but travels to her various outposts alone. She questions the existence of God and urges her students to think for themselves and envision the whole world beyond their small town. She learns to drive a car and takes airplane lessons. She marries her second husband (her first not being who he seems) and ends up raising her family in Arizona. This is a generally chronological plot summary, but within each of these activities, what is Walls trying to convey? I had a conversation with a co-worker of mine (I read this book for a book club meeting that I was unable to attend) who made a valid hypothesis: it's conceivable that Walls was trying to provide fictional examples of the feminist movement through the story of her grandmother. While this is an incredibly noble idea, the fictionalization makes it a stretch at times. My co-worker cited this example: While working in Chicago, one of Lily's roommates is killed when her long hair pulls her into a piece of machinery at a bottling plant. Lily cuts her own hair and offers this assessment:

"I didn't expect to like my new short hair, but I did. It took almost no time to wash and dry, and I didn't have to fuss with curling irons, hairpins, and bows. I went around the boardinghouse with the scissors, trying to talk the other girls into cutting their hair, pointing out that even if they didn't work in a factory, the world today was filled with all manner of machinery--with wheels and cogs and turbines--that their hair could get caught up in. Long curls were a thing of the past. For us modern women, short-cropped hair was the way to go (Walls 74)."

As my co-worker pointed out, the early twentieth century feminist movement, like any social move, didn't happen overnight. Again, this is a novel, but this theme (among others) is blatant to the point of being slightly insulting to the reader. These themes are fantastic, but I found myself, throughout the course of the reading, internalizing the history and wanting to do some non-fiction research on the fictionalized ideas.

Walls shows narrative acumen in other areas, though. The place descriptions are some of the more evocative, vivid scenes I've encountered in recent readings. Her attention to detail, creates American small towns and cities that would be right at home in the fictional worlds of John Dos Passos: they feel like a careful combination of the realistic and the cinematic. Despite my critique of the overall motivation of Half Broke Horses, I found myself caught up in the various places where Lily ends up.

"When the train pulled into Chicago, I took down my little suitcase and walked through the station into the street. I'd been in crowds before--county fairs, livestock auctions--but I'd never seen such a mass of people, all moving together like a herd, jostling and elbowing, nor had my ears been assaulted by such a ferocious din, with cars honking, trolleys clanging, and hydraulic jackhammers blasting away.
I walked around, gawking at the skyscrapers going up everywhere, then I made my way over to the lake--deep blue, flat, and as endless as the range, only it was water, fresh and flowing and cold even in the summer. Coming from a place where people measured water by the pailful, where they fought and sometimes killed each other over water, it was hard to imagine, even though I was looking at it, that billions of gallons of fresh water--I figured it had to be billions or even trillions--could be sitting there undrunk, unused, and uncontested (Walls 69)."

As Lily grows older and her children become the age she was when the novel opened, her actions become even more far-fetched. She maintains her independent spirit, but Walls's attempts at comedic, outrageous scenarios feel forced and implausible, especially in a novelized context. Fiction allows for things that don't normally happen in everyday life, but in Half Broke Horses, they're presented so casually that the folly becomes slightly ludicrous. For example, after the death of her father, Lily wants to bury him on his ranch, and ends up transporting the body herself.

"In no time we were out of Tuscon and flying through the desert, heading east into the morning sun. I was driving faster than I'd ever driven before--cars going the other way flashed past--since I wanted to make sure we got back to the ranch before the body started to turn. I figured if I did get pulled over by any police, they'd cut me some slack once they eyed the cargo.
I had to stop a couple of times to ask for gas. Seeing as how the drivers might notice the body when they came out to siphon me their gas, I varied the pitch. 'Gentlemen,' I said, 'I got my dad's dead body in the back of my car, and I'm trying to get him home to be buried as quick as possible in this heat (Walls 198).'"

This situation, while potentially a true story, is just written in far too different a tone than the rest of the work, and that's likely what gave me the biggest pauses during my reading. Walls is a natural storyteller, but the oddity at times, especially late in the novel, feels like part of a different work. I never doubt Lily's history and personality as a strong woman, but Walls seems too intent on stretching the fictionalized elements. Her afterword stresses her research into her grandmother's life and the happenings in the various places mentioned, and I'm sure that she made sure to present a chronologically accurate portrayal. However, I feel the work would have benefited from one of two different directions. The first one, however, goes against the whole point of Half Broke Horses: it would have succeeded for me as a strict novel without any mention of her grandmother, since I would have gone into the work expecting a fictionalized story of an early American woman. Then, I might have been more inclined to accept the sometimes exaggerated happenings. The second direction is perhaps more plausible. Given Walls's background in journalism, I would have been eager to read a history of the eras and places mentioned, with sketches of her grandmother's life explored as context. Even if Walls didn't have all of the information or knowledge of what really happened, the work could have been a fascinating American history sketch alongside a personal family portrait. But again, these are just my own ideas, and they intentionally go against what Walls had in mind.

I didn't completely dislike the book, but I had trouble with the presentation. Perhaps I would have been better off starting with her debut book The Glass Castle, the preceding memoir that garnered a lot of attention before Half Broke Horses. Walls has admirable writing talent, but the combination of fiction and a desire for a biographical sketch seemed to be at odds throughout the work. If she ever publishes an original novel, I'll gladly read it and hopefully enjoy the story on its own merit without being caught up in the wonder of how it potentially balances with real events.

Work Cited:
Walls, Jeannette. Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel. Copyright 2009 by Jeannette Walls.

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