How the west was won with the help of women comes to mind as I read Jeannette Wall’s latest novel. The Glass Castle, an award-winning memoir by Jeannette, told her hardscrabble life story. Now Jeannette tells the story of Lily Casey Smith, her maternal grandmother born in 1901 in the southwest. The trials Lily had growing up during those hard times will make any one appreciate life today. Her unconventional father kept the kids running the ranch while he wrote letters to congressmen and pursued his own interests. Lily took to ranch life and yet knew there was more to life. She loved school and was able to teach school at the age of 15 when she traveled on horseback 500 miles to her first teaching post in the Arizona frontier. Lily became known as “the mustang-breaking, poker playing, horse-race-winning school marm of Coconino County”. She married twice, once to a bigamist with several children, the second time to a solid older man that was a highly respected rancher. The thousands of acres of land they ranched for owners in England, kept them leading a very hard, lean existance as they saved money for their own ranch. To make money, Lily tried everything from selling bootlegged whiskey, to driving a hearse as a taxi and school bus, she learned to fly planes, trained horses and raced horses and taught school at numerous isolated locations sometimes taking her two children with her.
Jeannette ends Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel explaining that she didn’t think of the book as fiction, ” Lily was a very real woman and to say that I created her or the events of her life is giving me more credit than I am due. However, since I don’t have the words from Lily herself, and since I have also drawn on my imagination to fill in details that are hazy or missing…..the only honest thing to do is call the book a novel.”