Rosemary and Little Jim love to play together, and especially love to ride horses. They frequently get banged up while playing outside, but their parents tell them to “tough it out.” One day while Lily is driving with Rosemary, the hearse gets stuck in the mud. Lily spots a group of wild horses and shows Rosemary how to catch one so that they can ride it home. Rosemary wants to keep it, but Lily says the last thing they need is another “half-broke horse,” and tells Rosemary to smack her on the rump to send the mare away.
Lily’s children are similar to their mother in their love for the outdoors. Lily refuses to coddle them when they get hurt, just as Dad refused to coddle her when she broke her arm or had to get her appendix taken out. Lily again makes reference to the half-broke horses of the book’s title, referencing those creatures who, like Rosemary, have yet to be tamed.
Sensing the kids need more “civilizing,” Lily and Jim send both to boarding schools. Lily vows to finish her degree and join the teachers’ union so she won’t keep getting fired for her “style.” She registers for a heavy course-load and finds a boarding house in Phoenix, again relishing academic life and feeling like it is a break from the ranch chores. Neither Rosemary nor Little Jim take to boarding school, and Rosemary especially is viewed as a “wild child” at her Catholic school because of her rambunctious demeanor. Her classmates make fun of her for being a farmer’s daughter. When she stands up for herself and dunks a classmate’s head in dishwater, Lily is proud and feels that there is some of herself in her daughter after all.
Sick of having to deal with men who try to control her classroom, Lily takes matters into her own hands. Rosemary is further established as a half-broke horse—a child who simply cannot fit in with her structured school environment. Nevertheless, Lily values her daughter’s boldness and the fact that she sticks up for herself. Little Jim’s behavior is not viewed as a problem by his school because he is a boy and boys are more expected to be unruly—again reflecting the sexist attitudes of the time.
Despite being tested and proving bright, Rosemary is not allowed back at the academy after her second year because she is too disruptive. Both she and Little Jim are ecstatic to return to life on the ranch. By then, Lily has earned her college degree. She easily finds another teaching job in a town called Big Sandy and enrolls Rosemary and Little Jim in her class. World War II is underway, but it does not have a big effect on their lives apart from a shortage of gasoline. Mom has died while Lily was studying in Phoenix, and now Buster and Dorothy have put Dad in a nursing home. Dad begs Lily to come see him before he dies, calling her his “best hand.”
Rosemary being unable to stay in school foreshadows her later inability to stay in one place or ever adhere to societal rules for long. With her degree, Lily is able to better take charge of her career. Dad’s acknowledgement that Lily was his “best hand” reflects her work ethic and intelligence, while also emphasizing the unfairness of Buster being the one who inherited the ranch.
Lily trades beef for gasoline ration coupons and sets off with Rosemary in the hearse. They run out of gas by Tempe, however. Lily goes into a diner and plays up being a damsel in distress, asking the male customers if they can lend them some gas. They oblige, and after this Lily says to Rosemary, “Whoever said I couldn't play the lady?”
Lily again uses prejudiced expectations of women’s behavior to her advantage, making a fool of well-meaning men in the process. Here, acting “ladylike” is simply another example of Lily’s resourcefulness and self-reliance.
They reach Tucson and visit Dad in his old folks’ home, where he appears very frail and is too sick to be moved. Lily is proud that Rosemary remains stoic beside her grandfather, and thinks that she has “a brain, a spine, and a heart.” Dad makes Rosemary promise to bury him at the KC ranch, and he dies that evening. The next morning, they put his body in the back of the hearse and Lily drives faster to make it to the ranch before the body starts to rot in the heat. Once they arrive, they bury him in the ranch’s cemetery. Lily does not feel as gutted by his death as she was by Helen’s; she feels Dad had cheated death by surviving being kicked in the head by the horse as a boy, and that he had lived a long and happy life.
Lily has already expressed her reluctance to cry in front of her daughter, and as such appreciates Rosemary’s stoicism; Lily knows Rosemary does not need to adhere to an academy’s rules to be a good person in her estimation. Lily appreciates that Dad took charge of his own fate and made the best of his lot; as such, his life was all that it could be, and she finds no reason to mourn his death.
Dad left the KC Ranch to Buster and the homestead on Salt Draw to Lily, but also owed thousands in back taxes. Lily debates selling the land to pay them or digging into their savings meant to buy Hackberry. On the way home, she has Rosemary try her hand at persuading men to give them gas, and she takes to it quickly despite only being twelve. They stop to see the Madonna of the Trail in Albuquerque, a twenty-foot statue of a pioneer woman holding a baby in one hand and a rifle in the other, while another child clings to her skirt. Lily is moved to tears at the sight. She resolves not to sell the Salt Draw homestead, wanting deeply to own a piece of land and accepting they may never have enough money to buy Hackberry anyway.
The Madonna of the Trail represents how much work women must do to survive in Lily’s world—at once occupying the roles of wife, mother, and pioneer. Lily sees her own story reflected in the statue—a rarity for women of her time. Having grown up so close to nature but always on a man’s terms, this sight is what causes Lily to realize how much she wants to have a piece of the earth to herself.
With the war going on, the military is using the railroad system to ship troops and equipment. Lily and Jim take the cattle to market when the train is available in December, and they bring Rosemary and Little Jim to help. Rosemary roots for the cattle, and sometimes tries to let a steer escape—something that makes Lily say she is not suited to ranch life. Rosemary is now thirteen, “quite a looker,” and smitten with a Havasupai cowboy named Fidel Hanna. Lily tells her to watch herself around cowboys.
Modern transportation continues to become further embedded in society. Rosemary exhibits the same reckless urge towards freedom that led her to release Bossie the cow. Lily knows that Rosemary’s blossoming beauty will spell trouble for her daughter.
Rosemary declares that she wants to learn to skin a steer, something she will need to know as a rancher. Jim agrees, and slaughters one a few days later. Lily reflects that unlike herself, Rosemary has grown up around cowboys and as such has been sheltered from this part of ranch life. Rosemary cries while skinning the steer but finishes the task, proving she can do it but also that she does not have the heart for ranch life, and none of them mention the event again.
Rosemary is stubborn and proud, like Lily, but too sensitive for the life of a rancher. From this moment on, it is clear that her own life will follow a different path than her parents’.
The next summer Clarice Pearl, a woman with the Department of Education, writes to request that Lily drive her and a nurse to a Havasupai village to investigate hygiene standards. Lily asks Fidel Hanna, who lives on the reservation, to help. He says they are “coming to inspect the savages.” Lily takes Rosemary and picks up Miss Pearl and a nurse, Marion Finch, both of whom she views as “disapproving do-gooders.”
Fidel Hanna calls out the racism and prejudice inherent to this inspection of his home. Lily, truly her father’s daughter, similarly recognizes that Clarice Pearl and Marion Finch are misguided and snobbish in their efforts to “help” the reservation.
Lily tries to explain some background about local tribal traditions while she drives, but the officials are dismissive. Fidel and his friends guide them the rest of the way to the village on horseback. While Lily marvels at the beauty of the land, the two officials continue to look on with disdain. Fidel comments that when people like the officials take Native children and send them to schools, they are just making them unfit for both the outside world and reservation life—like he is. Rosemary declares that it’s like the Garden of Eden, and says she wishes she could live there. Lily says that living in a dirt house gets old quickly.
The officials continue to exhibit racist prejudice towards the tribe. Fidel Hanna confronts the problems with people like Clarice and Marion taking Native children from the reservation in the name of a supposedly better life; really, Hanna suggests, this life is simply more familiar to people like Miss Pearl and Miss Finch, but often worse for the people they purport to help.
The next night Lily wakes to discover that Rosemary had snuck out to go swimming with Fidel and his friends in her underwear. Clarice Pearl found her and angrily dragged her back. Lily is furious that Rosemary disobeyed her and ignored everything she has taught her, and feels something “dark” come out of her as she beats Rosemary with a belt until she feels she has gone too far. The next night at home, Lily tries to tell Rosemary that she was simply trying to teach her a lesson. Rosemary pulls away and says she will never whip her own children.
Clarice Pearl’s indignation upon finding Rosemary again reflects sexist attitudes of the time about proper behavior for girls. As someone who grew up breaking wild animals and always trying to teach lessons to her own children and others, Lily is furious that her efforts towards reaching her own daughter have failed, and she lets her anger take the better of her. This moment arguably marks the first and most important break between Lily and Rosemary.
When Clarice Pearl threatens to report Fidel for indecency with a minor, Fidel joins the army. He is later traumatized by the war, and when he returns he shoots up a Hopi village. After serving time in prison, his own tribe will not allow him to return, and he lives as an outcast by himself on a corner of the reservation.
Miss Pearl’s actions further reflect the racism of the time. The poverty and hardship that Lily faced as a child were magnified for people like Fidel Hanna, and the consequences for falling out of line even greater.
Lily sends Rosemary back to boarding school. The Poms declare their intention to sell the ranch. Gaiter—a famous movie director—and a rodeo cowboy Lily calls “Boots” buy the ranch, though Lily can sense that they don’t know anything about proper ranching. They rename it the Showtime Ranch, tear down the buildings, and fire Jim and Old Jake, along with the primarily Mexican and Native American ranch hands, because they don’t look enough like cowboys. Lily resents the changes, feeling that she and Jim ran the place honestly and well for the past eleven years. Still, Lily refuses to feel sorry for herself. She gives Patches, nearing thirty, to the Havasupai, and the family sets off for Phoenix. As they drive away in the hearse, Lily tells Little Jim he must not look back.
Gaiter and Boots have only a shallow understanding of ranching, lacking the deep history and connection that Lily and Jim have with the natural world. The two men prioritize appearance and comfort over hard-won knowledge and experience, which will quickly prove their downfall. Lily remains stoic as ever, and her leaving echoes the Casey family leaving Salt Draw behind many years earlier.