And ya gotta love the hearse.

Half Broke HorsesHalf Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Raised on ranches in Texas and Arizona in the first years of the last century, on page 3 Lily Casey Smith saves her younger siblings from a flash flood by shoving them up a cottonwood tree and making them do their multiplication tables all night so they wouldn’t fall asleep and fall out. By the time the sun comes up the waters have receded and Lily shepherds her siblings home, where her mother immediately falls to her knees and gives thanks to their guardian angel for their deliverance. Lily thinks

Helen and Buster got down and started praying with Mom, but I just stood there looking at them. The way I saw it, I was the one who’d saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel. No one was up in that cottonwood tree except the three of us.

When she’s fifteen years old, lacking even a high school diploma, she gets a job teaching in a one-room schoolhouse 500 miles west. She gets there on horseback.

I figured the trip would take a good four weeks, since I could average about twenty-five miles a day and would need to give Patches a day off every now and again. The key to the trip was keeping my horse sound.

After a diversion through Chicago and a marriage that goes bad, Lily, having gotten her high school diploma now, goes back to that one-room schoolhouse in Red Lake, where

I became known as Lily Casey, the mustang-breaking, poker-playing, horse-race-winning schoolmarm of Coconino Country, and it wasn’t half bad to be in a place where no one had a problem with a woman having a moniker like that.

That moniker introduces her to her future husband, Big Jim, and eventually they manage a ranch in western Arizona, or they do until the ranch’s British investors pull the rug out from beneath their feet. Along the way there are wonderful descriptions of the scenery. After a rainstorm ends a drought

…the plateau turned bright green, and the next day the ranch was covered with the most spectacular display of flowers I had ever seen. There were crimson Indian paintbrushes and orange California poppies, white mariposa poppies with their magenta throats, goldenrod and blue lupines and pink and purple sweet peas. It was like a rainbow you could touch and smell.

and then there’s Christmas, Arizona-style, circa 1939

For the most part, pioneers and ranchers didn’t have the time or money for gift giving and tree trimming, and they tended to treat Christmas like Prohibition, another eastern aberration that wasn’t of much concern to them. A couple of years back, when some missionaries were trying to dazzle the Navajos into converting, they had a gift-bearing Santa Claus jump out of a plane, but his parachute didn’t open, and he landed with a thud in front of the Indians, convincing them–and most of the rest of us, too–that the less we had to do with jolly old Saint Nick, the better off we’d be.

But she keeps moving forward, because that’s what Lily does. And ya gotta love the hearse.

I read this book in one sitting. Lily’s voice is very strong, a tribute to the author, who is her granddaughter. Because you understand Lily through her voice, maybe you can forgive how she raises her children. She was certainly a product of her time and place, all hard work and no whining. Okay, I’m with her there, but I finished this “True-Life Novel” deeply grateful that Lily wasn’t my mother.

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3 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I can’t quite figure out the right place to leave this comment, so it’s here:

    I enjoyed the most recent Shugak/Campbell novel, especially for the homage to Manning Coles. BUT — The M4 does not have a fully automatic capability. Lesson learned in Vietnam: it wastes ammunition. M4 fires either single shots or 3-round bursts, as do many M-16s. A full-auto version is available for special ops, but would not be floating around where your characters could get it.

  2. Half Broke Horses sounds like a very interesting read Dana. I am always wanting to learn more about the people that had ranches and what life was like out here(in the west). Dana, I think what you were trying to do with the gun that kills Bill’s husband in that small office room more than does what it was meant to do and another tribal elder is taken from the world of Liam Campbell and Kate Shugak’s world.

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