Lily’s life cycles through times of extreme poverty and relative comfort. Though she believes her impoverished background has given her an invaluable work ethic, she also feels looked down upon by the rich. Nevertheless, Lily’s story is a testament to the power of hard work and a manifestation of the traditional American Dream.
Lily grows up so poor that her family lives in a dirt dugout for the first few years of her life, and cannot afford many of the things modern people take for granted. For example, Lily has to fight for her chance to attend school not only because she is a girl, but also because her parents cannot always afford the tuition. Lily has no time to wallow in misfortune, however, and appreciates others who similarly make the best of their lot in life. She admires Lupe because, despite being thrown out of her own home, she never feels sorry for herself. She respects Dorothy Clemens—the daughter of a tenant farmer hired by Dad, and who eventually marries Buster and runs the ranch—for similar reasons.
Going without for so long also teaches Lily a sense of resourcefulness, which becomes invaluable throughout her life. As an adult, she and Jim waste nothing—repurposing old clothes and lumber, sitting on crates for chairs, and fashioning wire into coffee mug handles. When she wants to save up money to buy the Hackberry ranch, she shows her children how to dig through trash to find recyclables. When she wants a gown to attend the Gone With the Wind premiere, she proudly fashions one out of her living room curtains. Lily’s background grants her optimism about her ability to overcome obstacles and an appreciation of what she has.
Unearned wealth, on the other hand, breeds an obnoxious sense of superiority. Lily often feels looked down upon by the rich and has little patience for those who act “hoity-toity.”At her Catholic school, Lily quickly establishes herself as more intelligent than her wealthier classmates and also less prone to moping and homesickness; life on the ranch makes life at the academy feel like “one long vacation.” She also appreciates that their gray uniforms “leveled out the differences between those who could afford fancy store-bought clothes and those of us, like me, who had only home-dyed beechnut brown dresses.” When Lily becomes a maid in Chicago, her first boss, Mim, seems “very impressed with herself” and treats Lily as if she doesn’t exist. Lily decides she will not spend her life under the thumb of people like Mim, insisting, “There was no shame in doing hard work, but polishing silver for rich dunderheads was not my Purpose.”
Lily similarly does not see the need for fancy things, and instead asserts that “you can get so used to certain luxuries that you start to think they’re necessities.” For example, though she enjoys having indoor plumbing and electricity at her and Jim’s home in Ash Fork, she is easily able to re-adapt to a simpler life on the ranch. Unlike Mom, who clings to her prized walnut headboard even as a flood destroys the family dugout, Lily rejects blindly worshipping or defining her worth via finery. When Rosemary later attends boarding school, Lily gives her a strand of fake pearls, insisting that if she holds her head high no one will know the difference.
By the end of the story Lily lives comfortably in the tiny town of Horse Mesa, happier in that “glorified camp” than she was in her large house in Phoenix. Lily is never content to sit idly even when she has the means to, however, and in addition to teaching fills her hours with political advocacy. For Lily, the American Dream is not simply about going from rags to riches, or from a life of endless toil to one of indulgent leisure. Without ever glamorizing the difficulties of poverty, her story ultimately suggests that frugality and hard work are themselves moral virtues. For Lily, the American dream is not freedom from work, but rather freedom to support herself through work she finds meaningful.
Poverty and the American Dream ThemeTracker
Poverty and the American Dream Quotes in Half Broke Horses
Most of the other girls came from rich ranch families. Whereas I was used to hollering like a horse trainer, they had whispery voices and ladylike manners and matching luggage. Some of the girls complained about the gray uniforms we had to wear, but I liked the way they leveled out the differences between those who could afford fancy store-bought clothes and those of us, like me, who had only home-dyed beechnut brown dresses. I did make friends, however, trying to follow Dad’s advice to figure out what someone wanted and help her get it, though it was hard, when you saw someone doing something wrong, to resist the temptation to correct her. Especially if that someone acted hoity-toity.
Mom and Dad always talked as if it was a matter of course that Helen and I would marry and Buster would inherit the property, though I had to admit I'd never actually met a boy I liked, not to mention felt like marrying. On the other hand, women who didn't marry became old maids, spinsters who slept in the attic, sat in a corner peeling potatoes all day, and were a burden on their families, like our neighbor Old Man Pucket’s sister, Louella.
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.
A distinctly malodorous aroma arose from the hole, and for a moment I missed my snazzy mail-order toilet with the shiny white porcelain bowl, the mahogany lid, and the nifty pull-chain flush. As I sat down, though, I realized that you can get so used to certain luxuries that you start to think they're necessities, but when you have to forgo them, you come to see that you don't need them after all. There was a big difference between needing things and wanting things—though a lot of people had trouble telling the two apart—and at the ranch, I could see, we'd have pretty much everything we'd need but precious little else.
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.
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?