“You know what’s the greatest thing about painting?… If there’s something about the world that you don’t like, you can paint a painting that makes it the way you want it to be.”
The Glass Castle, one of the best-selling memoirs of all time, tells the story of Jeannette Walls growing up in the crazy whirlwind of her parents’ chaotic, wandering lives. In Half-Broke Horses, Jeanette jumps back a generation and biographs her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.
Writing in first person, Walls begins at the beginning with Lily’s birth, then carries on to build up a larger-than-life mythology of a woman who broke horses, drank and spat and cleaned up at poker, learned to fly a plane on a whim, went head-to-head against a Mormon elder as she tried to free his town’s girls from their indoctrination, and faced down the promise and perils of the 20th century with equal parts enthusiasm and derision. In Jeannette’s hands, Lily Casey Smith becomes a Great American Hero, daring to defy authority, running her father’s ranch and then her husband’s, never asking for apologies and never facing any true defeats, only temporary setbacks on her hard-working quest for success. Even though this grandiose mythology is hard to find credible at some points, Lily is such an inherently likeable narrator that I couldn’t help falling for her scrappy charm and enjoying the historical episodes that Walls depicts.
From a skydiving Santa Claus thumping to the earth in a failed-parachute incident to a quiet commentary on the horrors of residential schools and cultural genocide to the slapstick of an out-of-control hearse/school bus/taxi, Half-Broke Horses is full of dark comedy, social criticism, and the bizarrerie of life itself. Its cast of colourful characters is fascinating, and the way in which most things feel both excitingly fictive and true-to-life is a testament to Jeannette Walls’ writing talent.
As strange as it seems to insert oneself into the mind of one’s grandparent and write from that perspective, I can’t help but be impressed and inspired by Walls. While I don’t have any immediate plans to do try the same exercise, it’s something I might think about doing one day. Bruce Cinnamon, my 96-year-old grandfather, died a week ago. While editing his obituary for the newspaper, of course I was struck with how cruel it is to reduce a lifespan of 35, 403 days to a 300-word summary. Everyone deserves a novel like Half-Broke Horses documenting their life, but not everyone has a grandchild who wants to write books. So maybe some day I’ll follow Jeannette Walls’ cue, and write in first-person as Bruce Cinnamon.