Half Broke Horses


Jeannette Walls

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Half Broke Horses Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Jeannette Walls's Half Broke Horses. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Jeannette Walls

Jeannette Walls is the daughter of Rose Mary (formerly Rosemary) and Rex Walls—making Half Broke Horses protagonist Lily Casey Smith her maternal grandmother. Walls asserts that Rose Mary was more concerned with her artwork than motherhood, and Rex was a charming alcoholic who proved a frequent disappointment to his children. As such, Walls and her three siblings lived a chaotic, nomadic life, frequently moving between cities and facing extreme poverty. At times, Walls had to dumpster-dive to find food. At age seventeen, Walls ran away to New York City, where she was able to finish high school and gain admission to the prestigious Barnard College. After graduating with honors, she found work as a journalist and built a successful career as a gossip columnist. Rex and Rose Mary moved to the city to be near their children and lived as squatters for a time; Walls alleges that she was once in a taxi when she saw a homeless woman digging through trash, only to realize it was her own mother. In 2005, Walls published a memoir detailing her unconventional childhood called The Glass Castle. The book proved a smash success, selling more than 2.7 million copies and being made into a movie in 2017. Wall wrote Half Broke Horses in 2009 and appears briefly at the end of the book as a baby to whom Lily takes immediate liking. Walls has reconciled with Rose Mary and lives with her in Virginia, along with Walls’ second husband.
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Historical Context of Half Broke Horses

Lily Casey Smith was born during the Progressive Era, a period of cultural and technological upheaval in American society and which saw the passage of two constitutional amendments: The Nineteenth, which granted women the right to vote in 1920, and the Eighteenth, which banned the sale of alcohol. The subsequent period known as Prohibition lasted until the amendment’s repeal in 1933. The Progressive Era was also marked by mass industrialization and the introduction of the automobile. Jim and Lily drive a “flivver”—a Ford Model T brought to market in 1908. Made via assembly line production, the Model T was considered the first affordable car for everyday Americans and the most prominent symbol of modernization. Air travel too began to take hold in the first half of the twentieth century. The Wright brothers are credited with building and flying the first successful airplane in 1903. Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart, whom Rex at one point compares Lily to, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928. Lily also lives through both world wars. The United States entered World War I in 1917, at which point the government authorized the creation of 500,000 to 1,000,000 temporary jobs related to the production of munitions and supplies for soldiers. Civilians flocking to help the war effort led to a lack of workers in rural areas, which is exactly what allows Lily to get her teaching job despite not having a high school diploma. For the first time in history, women also entered the workforce in huge numbers to fill jobs traditionally held by men—a fact that continued to spur feminist sentiment well after the war had ended. The U.S. later entered World War II in 1941 after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The war ended in 1945 following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in the name of preventing further fighting. The decision to drop the bomb was, and remains, deeply controversial.

Other Books Related to Half Broke Horses

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’ memoir, picks up almost immediately where Half Broke Horses leaves off by telling the true story of her unconventional, impoverished childhood with Rosemary and Rex. Some of The Glass Castle is in fact foreshadowed by Lily’s story, including Rex’s burgeoning alcoholism and Rosemary’s intense focus on her art. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath focuses on poor migrant farm workers in the earlier twentieth century who, like the Casey and Smith families, are often at the mercy of the natural world. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby shows a more decadent side of life during the 1920s but, like Lily, questions the morality of unearned wealth. Walls deems Half Broke Horses a “true life novel” because it tells the real story of her grandmother growing up at the turn of the century. Other novels that focus on actual historical figures include Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, about Henry VII advisor Thomas Cromwell, and Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson. McLain’s Circling the Sun is especially of a kind with Lily’s story in that it focuses on real-life aviator Beryl Markham, the first woman to successfully fly across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west.
Key Facts about Half Broke Horses
  • Full Title: Half Broke Horses
  • When Written: 2009
  • Where Written: United States
  • When Published: 2009
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Novel based on true events
  • Setting: Multiple locations across the southwestern United States over the first half of the twentieth century, with a particular focus on Texas and Arizona.
  • Climax: Lily and Jim reject Gaiter’s offer to return as managers of his ranch, not wanting to work on behalf of someone else’s home. Realizing how penned in they are by the city, however, the two then decide to leave Phoenix to live closer to the land once again.
  • Antagonist: The natural world, societal prejudice
  • Point of View: First person

Extra Credit for Half Broke Horses

Family Literature. Walls was able to corroborate certain facts about the death of Robert Casey, Lily’s grandfather, because his own life is detailed in the book Robert Casey and the Ranch on the Rio Hondo by James D. Shinkle.

Property Value. The Texas land that Lily inherits from her father and ultimately decides not to sell makes an appearance in Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle. As an adult, Walls discovers that Rosemary had inherited the land from Lily but refused to sell it, despite the fact that by then it was worth about a million dollars—money that, Walls notes, could have drastically improved her and her siblings’ childhoods.