For the past three years, Jeannette Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle,” about her years growing up with dysfunctional parents, has been on the best-seller lists. People responded to her gripping story, and it has been a critical success as well.

Walls intended to follow up the book with the story of her mother Rose Mary’s life growing up on a ranch in Arizona, but Rose Mary kept telling her daughter that it was her own mother, Lily, the feisty, thrifty, tough-as-nails rancher, who had a more interesting story.

Rose Mary has mental health issues, but she was able to recount vividly so many details about Lily, that Walls took her mother’s advice and wrote “Half Broke Horses” about Lily’s life.

Although she could verify most of the details that Rose Mary told her, Walls decided to write the book as a true-life novel, similar to what Truman Capote did 50 years ago with “In Cold Blood.”

She wrote the novel in Lily’s voice, in the first person, and it works beautifully for this amazing tale. As I was reading it, I felt the same emotions that I did as a child reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie” books, and so it came as no surprise when I flipped to the back of the book and found it described as “Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults.”

The book grips you from the first sentence: “I was born in a dugout on the banks of Salt Draw in 1901, the year after Dad got out of prison on the trumped-up murder charge.” Lily’s dad grew up on a ranch in New Mexico, and although her mother lived in mining towns growing up, she was a gentile lady.

Lily, her brother, sister and parents lived in a home dug out of a riverbank wall. Lily’s mother refused to do hard chores, such as carrying water or firewood, so it was up to Lily to pitch in and do much of the physical labor from a very early age.

It was a harsh life, and Lily’s father frequently told her that she had to figure out her purpose in life. Nothing was worth doing unless it had a purpose. Lily’s father had a special way with horses, and he taught Lily at the age of 5 how to train horses.

Lily wanted to go to school, and when she was 13, she got the opportunity to go away to the Sisters of Loretto Academy of Our Lady of the Light in Santa Fe. Lily loved it there, and the Mother Superior took Lily under her wing, telling her that she would make a fine teacher.

When her father used Lily’s tuition money to buy dogs, she was forced to leave school and return home, which devastated her. She felt that her father wanted her home to work on the ranch, and this was his way of accomplishing that.

The Mother Superior wrote to Lily and told her that she could take a test, and if she passed, she could become a teacher due to a wartime teaching shortage. She passed it, and at the age of 15, Lily set out on her horse and rode 500 miles to her new job.

It took her 28 days to get there, and she slept out in the open. She bought supplies at the little stores she found in the small towns she passed through. Her gumption just amazed me; it is hard to imagine a 15-year-old girl doing that.

Lily loved teaching, but she had her own way of doing things, and a temper like her father, so she usually taught just one year at each job, and moved on. She ended up at Red Lake, and finally made some friends. She raced horses on the weekend, played poker with the guys, and married Big Jim.

Big Jim wanted to marry Lily for a long time, and she said yes on two conditions: that they be partners “whatever we do, we’ll be in it together, each sharing the load,” and that although he was a Mormon, he could not take any more wives. Big Jim’s response was “Lily Casey, from what I know of you, you’re just about as much woman as any man can handle.”

The best part of the book chronicles Lily and Jim’s life together. They opened a garage, lost it during the Great Depression, sold booze during prohibition, and finally ended up managing a huge ranch in Arizona. They raised their two children there, Little Jim and Rose Mary, Walls’ mother. It was interesting to see Rose Mary’s young life, knowing how it turned out for her.

Lily was a truly fascinating woman. She loved the book “Gone With The Wind,” and she reminded me of Scarlett O’Hara in that she too loved the land, and would do anything she had to do to get the job done.

Jeannette Walls is appearing at the Auburn Education Foundation Inspiring Speaker Series at Auburn High School on April 13.  Tickets are $35 and are available at Downtown Books & Coffee in Auburn and Creekside Books & Coffee in Skaneateles, as well as at the AEF website,  

“Half Broke Horses” is a terrific book for adults, as well as for middle school and high school students. Lily is unforgettable and inspirational, and she represents the Western spirit that made this country great. I give it my highest rating of five stars.

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Diane La Rue is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her      lifelong goal is to read one book per week; she submits reviews monthly for The Citizen. She can be reached at

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