Half Broke Horses is the story of Lily Casey Smith, author Jeannette Walls’ fiery grandmother who grew up in the western United States in the first half of the twentieth century. Lily is an extremely strong woman who frequently butts heads with the sexist attitudes of the time. Her story highlights the many ways society has tried to control women’s lives, as well as how women like Lily carved their own paths in a world that afforded them few opportunities for independence.
Time and again Lily must cede opportunities and limit her dreams because she is a girl. Though she excels academically, for example, her younger brother Buster is allowed to both start school before her and to study longer. When Lily’s father, referred to as “Dad” throughout the novel, pulls her out of school after half a year, she asks if he has done the same to Buster. He bluntly replies, “No. He’s a boy and needs that diploma if he’s going to get anywhere.” Similarly, despite practically running the Casey family ranch from the time she is a young girl, Lily knows that Buster is the one who will inherit the property.
Lily knows that women’s choices remain limited no matter how smart or capable they are. Mother Albertina, the Mother Superior of Lily’s Catholic school, tells her there are “three careers available” to women: “a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher,” and encourages the willful Lily to become the latter. “The women I know with strong personalities, the ones who might have become generals or the heads of companies if they were men, become teachers,” she says. Meanwhile, Lily’s tradition-minded mother, referred to simply as “Mom,” believes her daughter needs only enough knowledge to make someone a good wife. Snagging a husband is the main means by which women of the time are able to ensure security and protection. Before setting off to find work in Chicago, Lily reflects that if she stays at the family “KC Ranch,” all she can do is wait for a man to propose or risk becoming a “potato-peeling spinster in the corner of the kitchen.” She leaves for the city because, though keenly aware of the ways in which society means to hold her back, Lily insists on seeking more from life.
Though Lily—and later her daughter Rosemary—is forthright and opinionated, she still lives in a world where women face harsh consequences for not being sufficiently submissive and pure. Men are able to behave more freely, and women often bear the brunt of men’s actions. Lily does not report her first husband Ted’s bigamy to the authorities, for example, fearing that his going to prison would just make life even more difficult for his other wife and their children. And despite not being at fault for Ted’s lies, Mom asserts that Lily’s first marriage makes her “tainted goods” in the eyes of future suitors.
Lupe, the Caseys’ Mexican servant, is thrown out by her own family after getting pregnant out of wedlock. Lily’s younger sister Helen, too, fears rejection by their parents when she becomes pregnant. The slick Hollywood producer she is dating leaves her after she refuses to get a dangerous back-alley abortion, and when Helen moves in with Lily in the small town of Red Lake both sisters are shunned. County superintendent Mr. MacIntosh even says Helen must leave to uphold the so-called moral sanctity of the school, which feels distinctly hypocritical to Lily considering that her students’ parents are “cattle rustlers, drunks, land speculators, bootleggers, gamblers, and former prostitutes.” Feeling she has no options left as an unmarried pregnant woman, Helen hangs herself. No matter how strong women may be, Lily still lives during a time when women are held to different standards than men and pay a steep price for deviating from accepted behavior.
Despite the danger, Lily repeatedly defies social conventions that dictate what women can do. She enjoys driving and flying airplanes, shocks the Red Lake locals with her ability to break the ornery mustang Red Devil, and pulls her small revolver on men who give her lip. When she takes her first flying lesson, the instructor remarks that he has never taught a woman before, and dismissively refers to Lily as “little lady.” She is quick to assert her skill in multiple typically masculine fields, saying, “Don't you ‘little lady’ me … I break horses. I brand steers. I run a ranch with a couple dozen crazy cowboys on it, and I can beat them all in poker. I'll be damned if some nincompoop is going to stand there and tell me that I don’t have what it takes to fly that dinky heap of tin.” Upon deciding she wants to have a child, she takes matters into her own hands by approaching Jim Smith and asking without hesitation if he would like to marry her. She also insists that they be equal partners in their marriage and is an invaluable part of their business ventures. It is Lily, for example, who starts selling bootleg alcohol to keep the family from going bankrupt.
Lily not only fights to live life on her own terms, but to empower other women to do so as well. She attends women’s suffrage rallies while living in Chicago, and, many years later, single-handedly registers the town of Horse Mesa to vote. She also spanks the Sheriff’s son Johnny Johnson after he sticks his hand up the dress of a female student named Rosita, thinking of both Ted and Helen’s slick producer and wanting to teach Johnny that there are consequences for mistreating girls. When Lily goes to teach in the remote Mormon town of Main Street, she is confronted by a society that treats its daughters like “breed mares,” and endeavors to teach her young female students that there is more to the world than bearing children. She does so in part by telling them her own life story. The novel thus suggests that a key element of finding one’s way is by learning from and being inspired by the example of other women.
Of course, Lily is fired from both Mormon school and for spanking Johnny when angry male locals complain; no matter how strong she may be, she is still living in a world that seeks to deny her autonomy. Nevertheless, she insists “I wasn't in the wrong. The rules were. I was a darned good teacher and had been doing what was necessary.” She tells Rosemary that she is not a “weak woman,” and decides to finish her degree so that she can join a teacher’s union and protect herself from being told what to do in the classroom by backward-thinking men. Indeed, Lily’s primary means of wriggling out from under the thumb of societal sexism is to always keep her own conscience. Her conviction that her culture’s sexist structures are wrong strengthens her resolve to do things her own way, and transforms her into a symbol of what women can accomplish when they put their faith in themselves.
Women’s Strength in a Man’s World ThemeTracker
Women’s Strength in a Man’s World 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.
I couldn't help feeling a little burned about being told by Fish Face that I was now unqualified to do something I'd spent the last four years doing.
Superintendent Maclntosh seemed to know what I was thinking. "You're young and strong, and you got pretty eyes," he said. "You just find yourself a husband—one of these soldier boys—and you'll be fine."
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.
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.
The parents of my schoolkids included cattle rustlers, drunks, land speculators, bootleggers, gamblers, and former prostitutes. They didn't mind me racing horses, playing poker, or drinking contraband whiskey, but my showing some compassion to a sister who'd been taken advantage of and then abandoned by a smooth-talking scoundrel filled them with moral indignation. It made me want to throttle them all.
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.
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.