Half Broke Horses


Jeannette Walls

Teachers and parents! Our Teacher Edition on Half Broke Horses makes teaching easy.
Themes and Colors
Women’s Strength in a Man’s World Theme Icon
Poverty and the American Dream Theme Icon
Technology and Progress Theme Icon
Connection to Nature Theme Icon
Fate vs. Self-Reliance  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Half Broke Horses, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Technology and Progress Theme Icon

Lily grows up during a time of rapid technological development across the United States, as electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, and automobiles become an integral part of American society. Many characters resist the changing times, but Lily is able to find success by embracing modern life without ever forgetting her roots. In her world, only those able to adapt and evolve can survive.

Lily’s lifetime spans multiple technological advances that forever change the fabric of American society. The most prominent symbol of modernity for Lily is the automobile. Though initially a rare sight, the car becomes increasingly unavoidable the older Lily gets. She sees no cars on her first journey from the KC Ranch to Red Lake, for example, but by the time she makes her third journey just a few years later she passes several on the road. Electricity, indoor plumbing, the telephone, and paved roads also become more prominent as time passes in the novel. When Jim and Lily leave their garage in Ash Fork behind, for example, Lily notes that the road to the ranch is easy because Route 66 has been paved for the first time. The Christmas lights she and Jim string up one year are the first electric bulbs many of the ranch hands have ever seen. The changes are not limited to traditional technology, either; upon the birth of her second child, Lily notes that midwife Granny Comb’s “mind-over-matter method of getting through the pain” has nothing on “marvelous modern anesthesia.”

Despite the inevitability of change, Dad constantly rails against industrialization and mechanization, declaring that it is “destroying the human soul.” Lily, on the other hand, recognizes that those who cling to the past are doomed. Having witnessed the future of transportation after teaching in Red Lake, she believes that horse-drawn carriages—and, as such, her father’s livelihood—will become obsolete. Dad’s anger over President Taft replacing the White House stables with a garage seems foolish, and she realizes that, as much as she loves horses, she does not want to join a dying industry. She says, “What Dad didn't understand was that no matter how much he hated or feared the future, it was coming, and there was only one way to deal with it: by climbing aboard.”

Unlike her father, Lily readily adopts modern technologies for use on the ranch. She suggests using bulldozers to dig out dams to catch water, for example. She and Jim also use their Chevy, rather than a horse, to pull a plow and dig furrows to divert water during a massive rainstorm. Upon buying a long-range radio for their ranch, Lily tells Jim that the device “brings the twentieth century to Yavapai County.” They use it to listen to the forecast and be better prepared for inclement weather. Towards the middle of the novel, Lily decides to show her children “the awesomeness of modern technology” and brings them to “the Boulder Dam, where four enormous turbines generated electricity that was sent all the way to California.” This emphasizes that the scope of modern technology is in stark contrast to the world into which Lily was born and suggests that the greatest innovations are yet to come.

Perhaps the most impactful piece of technology on Lily’s life is the red airplane that flies overhead upon her initial return from Red Lake. The plane, the first she has ever seen, marks a turning point for Lily, as it makes her realize how much more there is to the world than life on the KC Ranch. When she later takes her first flying lesson, she recognizes that the journey that took her a month on the back of Patches would have been mere hours in an airplane, foreshadowing how modern technology will revolutionize transportation across the country: “I loved Patches,” she says, “but that had been one long, rump-numbing journey. On an airplane, it wouldn’t have been much more than a little hop.” This suggests that modern technology can mean much more than convenience; it can also open up and connect the world in ways—both positive and negative—like never before.

Indeed, Lily also notes that flying above the earth feels like “beholding the entire world, seeing it all for the first time.” Technology can be a means to open people’s eyes—to new ideologies, different ways of life, and economic possibilities. The train, for example, allows Lily to move to Chicago, where she learns to debate politics and religion, and even joins in marches for women’s suffrage. By the time she takes a flight with Rex at the end of the novel, they soar over “a string of telephone poles”—suggesting a coming revolution in people’s ability to communicate faster and farther. With technology will come increased access to and exchange of information, resulting in the societal upheavals that are just beginning as Lily’ story comes to an end.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Technology and Progress ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Technology and Progress appears in each chapter of Half Broke Horses. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire Half Broke Horses LitChart as a printable PDF.
Half Broke Horses PDF

Technology and Progress Quotes in Half Broke Horses

Below you will find the important quotes in Half Broke Horses related to the theme of Technology and Progress.
Chapter 3  Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lily Casey Smith (speaker), Mother Albertina, Patches
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

As I listened to Dad, I could feel myself pulling away from him. All my life I'd been hearing Dad reminiscing about the past and railing against the future. I decided not to tell him about the red airplane. It would only get him more worked up. What Dad didn't understand was that no matter how much he hated or feared the future, it was coming, and there was only one way to deal with it: by climbing aboard.

Related Characters: Lily Casey Smith (speaker), Dad / Adam Casey
Related Symbols: The Red Airplane
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Lily Casey Smith (speaker), Mom / Daisy Mae Peacock, Minnie Hanagan
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

I discovered that I loved cars even more than I loved horses. Cars didn't need to be fed if they weren't working, and they didn’t leave big piles of manure all over the place. Cars were faster than horses, and they didn't run off or kick down fences. They also didn't buck, bite, or rear, and they didn't need to be broke and trained, or caught and saddled up every time you needed to go somewhere. They didn't have a mind of their own. Cars obeyed you.

Related Characters: Lily Casey Smith (speaker), Jim Smith
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Lily Casey Smith (speaker)
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

Cars were supposed to mean freedom, but all these people stuck in traffic on one way streets—where you weren't even allowed to make a U-turn to get the hell out of the jam—might as well have been sitting in cages. … Nothing had ever made me feel as free as flying and I was only a few hours away from getting my pilot’s license so I decided to take up lessons again. The airport had a flying school, but when I showed up one day, the clerk passed me an entire sheaf of forms and started yammering about eye exams physicals, takeoff slots, elevation restrictions and no-fly zones. I realized that these city folks had boxed off and chopped up the sky the same way they had the ground.

Related Characters: Lily Casey Smith (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Red Airplane
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis: