The power of nature teaches Lily early on that life is fragile and unpredictable. While her mother is content to passively accept certain catastrophic events as “God’s will,” Lily instead chooses to believe in her own power to prepare for and respond to whatever comes her way. After Lily saves her younger siblings from the flash flood at the beginning of the novel, she resents Mom chalking their survival up to her own prayers rather than Lily’s actions. When another flood hits the dugout, Mom prays instead of helping bail out the water; the dugout is destroyed, and, much to Lily’s annoyance, Mom again insists it was “God’s will.” Lily’s thinking contrasts with her mother’s because while she too has faith in God, she also has faith in her own ability to shape her life. Lily believes God presents opportunities that she must then take advantage of on her own.
Mother Albertina echoes this notion in her advice to Lily when she is forced to drop out of school. Mother Albertina says that when God closes a window he opens a door—but it is up to Lily to find it. Dad similarly asserts that while everyone has a true calling, Lily needs to figure out her “Purpose in Life” for herself. This attitude undergirds Lily’s actions throughout the novel. For example, it is why, rather than wait around for a husband at KC Ranch, a fifteen-year-old Lily undertakes a solo, 500-mile across the desert on horseback to reach her first-ever teaching gig. When she reaches Red Lake, she is proud that she has made it “through that darned door.” After Helen’s death, Lily begins to recognize how self-reliance manifests on an emotional level as well. She believes it is up to her to find her own happiness, noting that the sun “was going to rise and set regardless of whether I noticed it, and if I was going to enjoy it, that was up to me.”
Lily’s story shows how delicate and unpredictable life can be, and, as such, why it is vital to be prepared to handle whatever happens. When her roommate Minnie Hagan dies suddenly after her long hair is caught in a piece of machinery, Lily reflects that “there was a lot of danger in this world, and you had to be smart about it. You had to do what you could to prevent disaster.” To that end, she cuts her own hair to prevent it ever getting caught in a machine as Minnie’s did.
Dad tells Lily that people must “hope for the best and plan for the worst,” and raises her to view nearly every experience in her life as a lesson bringing her closer to her “Purpose”—and the most important lesson “is learning how to fall.” On a literal level, knowing how to fall from horses without getting injured saves Lily’s life when she is hit by a car in Chicago. More broadly, the setbacks in Lily’s life teach her how to move forward. Whether it be the destruction of the dugout, having to leave school, filing for bankruptcy, or losing the ranch, time and again Lily is able to learn from her past and pick herself back up. Regardless of the hand she is dealt, Lily balances her faith in God and her search for a broader sense of purpose with her belief that, through self-reliance, she can become the master of her own fate.
Fate vs. Self-Reliance ThemeTracker
Fate vs. Self-Reliance Quotes in Half Broke Horses
The windmill still lay toppled over the caved-in house, and the yard was strewn with branches. Dad was always going on about the easterners who came out to west Texas but weren't tough enough to cut it, and now we were folding our hand as well. Sometimes it didn't matter how much gumption you had. What mattered were the cards you'd been dealt.
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.
But no matter how much planning you do, one tiny miscalculation, one moment of distraction, can end it all in an instant. There was a lot of danger in this world, and you had to be smart about it. You had to do what you could to prevent disaster. That night at the boardinghouse, I got out a pair of scissors and a mirror, and although Mom always called my long brown hair my crowning glory, I cut it all off just below my ears.
She was convinced that Mom in particular would never forgive her for bringing shame on the family. Mom and Dad would disown her, she believed, the same way our servant girl Lupe's parents had kicked her out when she got pregnant. No man would ever want her again, Helen said, she had no place to go. She wasn't as strong as me, she said, and couldn't make it on her own.
"Don't you ever feel like giving up?" Helen asked. "I just feel like giving up."
"That's nonsense," I said. "You're much stronger than you think. There's always a way out." I talked again about the cottonwood tree. I also told her about the time I was sent home from the Sisters of Loretto because Dad wouldn't pay my tuition, and how Mother Albertina had told me that when God closes a window, he opens a door, and it was up to us to find it.
I realized that in the months since Helen had died, I hadn't been paying much attention to things like the sunrise, but that old sun had been coming up anyway. It didn't really care how I felt, it was going to rise and set regardless of whether I noticed it, and if I was going to enjoy it, that was up to me.
"Just you remember," I said, "that this is what could happen when an animal gets freedom. Animals act like they hate to be penned up, but the fact is, they don't know what to do with freedom. And a lot of times it kills them."
That, I came to see, was the heart of the matter. You were free to choose enslavement, but the choice was a free one only if you knew what your alternatives were. I began to think of it as my job to make sure the girls I was teaching learned that it was a big world out there and there were other things they could do besides being brood-mares dressed in feed sacks.
But the Jesuits were used to dealing with untamed ranch boys, and they regarded Little Jim as one more rambunctious rapscallion. Rosemary's teachers, however, saw her as a misfit. Most of the girls at the academy were demure, frail things, but Rosemary played with her pocketknife, yodeled in the choir, peed in the yard, and caught scorpions in a jar she kept under her bed. She loved to leap down the school's main staircase and once took it in two bounds only to come crashing into the Mother Superior. She was behaving more or less the way she did on the ranch, but what seemed normal in one situation can seem outright peculiar in another, and the nuns saw Rosemary as a wild child.
Dad's death didn't hollow me out the way Helen's had. After all, everyone had assumed Dad was a goner back when he got kicked in the head as a child. Instead, he had cheated death and, despite his gimp and speech impediment, lived a long life doing pretty much what he wanted. He hadn't drawn the best of cards, but he’d played his hand darned well, so what was there to grieve over?
I felt there was a lot more I could say about the subject of danger. I could have given her an entire lecture on it, talking about my dad getting his head staved in by a horse when he was three, about my Chicago friend Minnie getting killed when her hair got caught in machinery, about my sister, Helen, taking her own life after accidentally getting pregnant. Life came with as much adventure and danger as any one body needed. You didn't have to go chasing after them. But the fact of the matter was, Rosemary hadn't really listened to what I had to say ever since that time we visited the Havasupai and I gave her the whipping for swimming with Fidel Hanna.
I shook my head and looked at the lilies. "I could cut you all the slack in the world, but I still think my daughter needs an anchor."
"The problem with being attached to an anchor," he said, "is it's damned hard to fly."
As Rosemary climbed into the car, Rex patted her behind like he owned it, then got in beside her. They were both still laughing as Rex gunned the motor the way he always did.
Jim put his arm around me and we watched them take off up the street, heading out into open country like a couple of half-broke horses.