When Jeannette Walls' memoir, Glass Castles, came out a few years ago, I and all the reading women I know read it immediately. I don't remember how I heard about it, but there was a buzz in the air that caused all of us to snap it up as soon as it came out and talk about its haunting grace notes for months to come. Walls' story was such an odd combination of cruelty, beauty, survival and love. Born to parents who displayed outrageous neglect, seasoned with underlying love, Walls told her story in such straight-forward, non-judgmental terms that we readers were forced to reluctantly accept her life on her grounds. The crowning irony for me was, after growing up facing starvation and homelessness, Walls' discovery, in adulthood, that her mother owned millions of dollars worth of land in Texas.
Half Broke Horses is primarily the story of Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. Told from her point of view, Lily expresses herself as an iron-willed, fearless, outspoken force. The story of Walls' mother, Rosemary, is also painted into the arid desert landscapes. Like Walls' memoir, Half Broke Horses, presented as a novel, is engaging and portrays characters who are often over the top.
I couldn't help thinking, while reading it, how we daughters spend so much of our adult lives trying to fill out the stories of our mothers. Walls explains how her mother, who can't remember Walls' phone number, is able to recall detailed accounts of her mother's story. Walls also seems to be searching in Lily's story for truths about her mother. This book brings to mind my own meditations on old photo albums of my mother's family, and the stories told by facial expressions and discordant juxtapositions. Our mothers are a mystery to us, and we want it not to be so. We believe that somehow, knowing the truth, understanding the whole story, will set us free, define us or allow us to be who we are. As daughters, we feel made by the women who brought us here. Is Walls going back to her mother's source to understand what could produce a wealthy woman who chooses homelessness on the cold streets of New York City?
We all want to stave off the contradictions. Walls has a gift for turning the contradictions of her life into masterful stories.