Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Half Broke Horses" by Jeannette Walls

There are two reasons why I love Jeannette Walls's fictionalized biography of her grandmother Lily Casey Smith.  One is for what it shows about a particular slice of American history, the other for what it says about courage and determination.

West Texas and the surrounding area is the setting; late 19th c. through the 50s is the time period.  The "novel" is told in the first person in a succession of short, vivid chapters.  Each chapter adds a layer to the picture of the hard-scrabble, unforgiving land that was Lily Casey's home--as a child she lived in a dugout whose walls sometimes caved in when it rained--and the girl, who even as a young child, knew how to get things done.  We see what the lives of ranchers were really like, the endless hard work and sweat, the sudden disasters that could ruin a family.  Justice was still an individual matter much of the time, with scores settled violently and sometimes for good.  I won't go into detail about the book; you can find out about it on Amazon, or better yet read it yourself.  Instead, I offer my own reaction.

I love to look at old photographs.  I have one of my great-grandmother (maybe great-great-; I'm not sure) that was taken before the Civil War when she was sixteen.  She stands in her ruffled dress with its stiff voluminous skirt, carefully reading a letter that she holds in front of her with both hands.  Her dress is short enough to show her ankles, so she must be on the very verge of leaving childhood behind.  I wonder if the letter she is reading is from the man she would later marry?

My mother's family came from Richmond, VA, where I'm told they owned a plantation and slaves.  I don't know if they were true gentry, but family lore gave them an aristocratic aura.  When the war broke out, this girl, Agnes Singleton, and her two sisters were sent to live with relatives in Indianapolis.  These relatives were, I believe, the genuine article when it comes to pedigree.  They lived in a grand house with over-sized Victorian furniture, some of which ended up in my grandmother's house.  I inherited a sofa stuffed with horse hair that must have been a wonder in its day.  General Grant preferred to sit on it when he visited, and in our family we always referred to it as the General Grant.  I don't know how many pieces of furniture have names, but this one does.  It's an amazing piece really, with lots of carved wood details from periods as diverse as ancient Egypt, Greece, and the baroque.  At the top of the back there is a lion's head the size of a fist that comes out, to the delight of small children grown big enough to climb up on the upholstered but rigid seat.

But back to Agnes.  Like all good girls of the day, she attended church regularly and sang in the choir. Sitting in the congregation Sunday after Sunday was John McRae, a widower with small children.  He took notice of Agnes, who was pretty and genteel, and after the war was over and the Singleton girls had returned to Virginia, he made up his mind to act.  One day, the girls were looking out a window when they saw a horseman riding up toward the house.  "Who's that?" asked one.  "Why, that's John McRae.  I wonder what he's doing here?" said another.  In fact, he had come to propose marriage to Agnes.  I always thought this story incredibly romantic, until I learned that Agnes was already in love with someone else.  But John was rich.  He could not only provide for Agnes but also for her family.  Through his connections in Indiana he arranged for Agnes's parents to move onto one of the farms they owned west of Indianapolis.  Losing everything, hiding in caves from the Yankees, suddenly becoming the poor relations must have been a trauma shared by lots of families in the South.  I'm sure my forebears weren't alone in their plight, but having company in misery is cold comfort.  I believe this loss was felt down the generations and contributed to my mother's insistence on refinement and being "from a good family."

From time to time I gaze at this old photograph of my great-grandmother, who looks amazingly like my mother and my aunts, and try to imagine her life.  She was a part of history as surely as Grant or Lincoln.  It is people like her who interest me, people whose stories can tell us so much more than the size of battles or the signers of treaties.  They show us the past as a living thing.  In "Half Broke Horses" Walls has created--or re-created--her grandmother's voice, and as readers we get as close to what it was like inside that dugout, how it felt to be so dirty your jeans became waterproof, and where an indomitable spirit can lead you as it is possible to be.

Lily's story is one of both success and failure, but no failure was ever complete, and she never lacked for a way out of her difficulties.  She was one strong lady.  She didn't care what other people thought; she did what was best for herself and her family--as she saw it; she never felt sorry for herself, and she never gave up.  Her story inspires me not because it is a triumph over difficult odds, though there is that.  She makes me want to (as Miss Brodie would say) brisk up, to get on with business, to shake the possibilities out of life before time defeats me.


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