Half Broke Horses, By Jeannette Walls

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The Independent Culture

In her bestselling 2005 memoir The Glass Castle, American journalist Jeannette Walls recalled a childhood that gave dysfunction a new name. As she was raised by an alcoholic father and an eccentric mother, there were times when Wall and her siblings slept in cardboard boxes and subsisted on margarine and cat-food. How such untamed characters slipped under society's net is partially explored by this new book – a fictionalised re-telling of the life of her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey.

Born into a frontier-family in Western Texas in 1901, Lily was raised in a dugout: "more or less a big hole on the side of the riverbank". Her father was brain-damaged as a toddler, and her mother "worked hard" at being a lady. By the age of five, Lily was training her father's horses; aged 15, she saddled up her mare, Patch, and set out to make a new life as a teacher in Arizona. She moved to Chicago, married a bigamist "crumb bum", and moved back to Red Lake to teach.

As a record of ranch life before and during the Depression, Wall's book makes for a riveting read. There is little analysis of Lily's emotional state or historical exposition, but as retold "oral" history, it offers a shoot-from-the-hip account of a woman who sampled all the freewheeling delights and crippling hardships of the period. "Levi's we didn't wash at all," she explains at one point. "We wore them until they were shiny with mud, manure, tallow, cattle slobber, bacon fat, axle grease, and hoof oil – and then wore them some more."