“Half Broke Horses” and Writing your own Family Stories: September Book Club Selection
With summer about over are you ready for another great book? Half Broke Horses by best-selling author Jeannette Walls reminds us of the power of family stories. In this “true life novel” Jeannette gives us anecdotes in her grandmother’s voice that prove real life is often crazier than fiction.
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The book opens with the arresting account of ten year old Lily Casey saving the lives of younger brother, Buster and sister, Helen. The children see the cattle on the ranch running for higher ground and just before a six foot wall of water rushes in, Lily gets all three of them up into the branches of an old cottonwood tree. She keeps the younger children hanging on and awake all through the night as they wait for the waters to recede. That resourcefulness and toughness get her through a lifetime of hard knocks.
Lily and family survive the floods and tornadoes of Texas before giving up and moving to New Mexico. She works hard on the ranch and jumps at the chance for formal schooling at a Catholic school. When Lily has to leave the school after a few months because her father spent the tuition on four Great Danes, the head nun tells her: “when God closes a window, he opens a door, but it’s up to you to find it.” With the nun’s pronouncement that women have only three career options: a nurse, secretary, or teacher, Lily decides teaching is for her. Without a diploma or degree of any kind, the only teaching stint sixteen year old Lily can find is 500 miles to the west in the small Arizona community of Red Lake. She sets off on her horse, Patches, riding the entire way.
I’d been on the road, out in the sun and sleeping in the open, for twenty-eight days. I was tired and caked with dirt. I’d lost weight, my clothes were heavy with grime and hung loosely, and when I looked in a mirror, my face seemed harder. My skin had darkened, and I had the beginnings of squint lines around my eyes. But I had made it, made it through that darned door. (p. 61)
The nun’s advice will guide Lily every time she comes up against a “closed window” and she has plenty of those. Short engaging chapters make this an easy read and give family historians good examples of family storytelling.
What can we learn from Half Broke Horses?
We don’t need to know every detail of a story to tell it.
In writing the book Jeanette drew upon the stories she’d heard all her life. Her grandmother Lily had told those stories to Jeanette’s mother who in turn told them to Jeanette. She used photographs and numerous interviews with her mother and other family members as a basis for the stories. What about conflicting points of view or copious research? Jeanette wrote:
In telling my grandmother’s story, I never aspired to that sort of historical accuracy. I saw the book more in the vein of an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and undertaken with the storyteller’s traditional liberties.
I wrote the story in the first person because I wanted to capture Lily’s distinctive voice, which I clearly recall . . . since I don’t have the words from Lily herself, and since I have also drawn on my imagination to fill in details that are hazy or missing . . . the only honest thing to do is call the book a novel.” (p. 272)
Bring your stories to life.
Aren’t all family stories told through the eye of the teller? We all remember the past uniquely, so why not write our stories in a way that brings them to life? What if those stories aren’t all rosy? Maybe those are exactly the stories we need to tell.
Nicole and I attended Rootstech 2016 where the theme of family stories was addressed by each keynote speaker. Bruce Feiler, author and journalist asked: “Do your stories pass the campfire test? do they have the emotion, the passion, the pain in order to endure?”
Wall’s telling of her grandmother’s stories in Half Broke Horses certainly passes Bruce Feiler’s campfire test. Perhaps those same stories gave her the strength to overcome her own childhood struggles, the subject of her first book, The Glass Castle. Feiler’s research on strengthening children through family stories sheds new light on the importance of our role as family historians.
How can your family’s stories fortify the children in your life? Nicole posted about Bruce Feiler’s tips on storytelling and how a family story can strengthen a child. She includes links to his talk and several other articles.
Write the details.
Reading Half Broke Horses has inspired me to write my family stories in a more detailed form. My dad had a childhood full of adventures and would tell us those stories with tears running down his cheeks from laughing so hard. I want my grandchildren to have those stories and I want to tell them in a way that passes Bruce Feiler’s campfire test, with the emotion, the passion and the pain to endure.
I’ll be sharing those stories each month in a new series called “The Adventures of Bobby Gene.” I’ll also be sharing writing tips and tricks I learn as I go.
Do you have family stories waiting to be told? Pick an ancestor and write along with me!