One way to really get me pissed off is to tell me that the past was innocent and simple. What you really mean when you say that is that your childhood was innocent and simple, which is probably also debatable, but at least seems fair from a nostalgic standpoint. The farther we look back to our childhoods, the more innocent life seems, and so things that happened before we were born must be the most innocent. No. Not true. People have always been just about as fucked up as we are now. I would say we’ve never been significantly better or significantly worse. That is why I love honest memoirs and biographies like this one. It is tough to even wrap my brain around the amazing and horrible things people have done and still do, and I want to hear about all of it.
As you probably know, Jeannette Walls wrote Half Broke Horses
about her grandmother’s insane life. Talk about a real life superhero! The book starts out with a harrowing description of Lily, Walls’s grandmother, saving her little brother and sister from a flash flood by making them climb a cottonwood tree and cling there overnight while the flood subsided. She quizzed them on multiplication tables and trivia to keep them awake through the night so they didn’t fall out of the tree. In the morning, when the children limped home through the residual water from the flood, Walls describes their reunion with their parents:Dad was on the porch, pacing back and forth in that uneven stride he had on account of his gimp leg. When he saw us, he let out a yelp of delight and started hobbling down the steps toward us. Mom came running out of the house. She sank to her knees, clasped her hands in front of her, and started praying up to the heavens, thinking the Lord for delivering her children from the flood.
It was she who saved us, she declared, by staying up all night praying. ‘You get down on your knees and thank your guardian angel,’ she said. ‘And you thank me, too.’
Helen and Buster got down and started praying with Mom, but I just stood there looking at them. The way I saw it, I was the one who’d saved us all, not Mom and not some guardian angel. No one was up in that cottonwood tree except the three of us. Dad came alongside me and put his arm around my shoulders.
‘There weren’t no guardian angel, Dad,’ I said. I started explaining how I’d gotten us to the cottonwood tree in time, figuring out how to switch places when our arms got tired and keeping Buster and Helen awake through the long night by quizzing them.
Dad squeezed my shoulder. ‘Well, darling,’ he said, ‘maybe the angel was you.’”
And the story basically just takes off from there. As a teenager, Lily rides her pony five hundred miles across Arizona to teach in a rural school. She moves to Chicago to experience love and heartbreak, and she basically dominates the entire time. The Chicago story is nuts, like every other story in this book. I love it all, and while I was reading it, I just thought, “I KNEW you assholes lived crazy lives. Why isn’t all of history THIS??” Because these are the people I care about – people like Lily Casey Smith who take life head on and drain every drop out of it. I love that. I want to hear about all of it.
I think a couple of things are going on here, though, with the fact that this book wasn’t as much of a hit as [b:The Glass Castle|7445|The Glass Castle|Jeannette Walls|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1368431406s/7445.jpg|2944133]. I think The Glass Castle
actually, counter intuitively, benefitted from its off-putting child-molestation cover. It hit the Oprah audience square on with that cover, but then it was actually brilliant, so to the extent the anti-Oprah crowd could be convinced to try it, it was gritty enough for them.
We all came to Half Broke Horses
, though, with that history and expectation. Like, we wanted to have that, “OMG SO MUCH BETTER THAN I EXPECTED” experience with this book, too. But, since we expected brilliance, it was kind of an impossible standard. So, I really, really loved this book. I think it was at least as good as The Glass Castle
, and it presents this incredible American history that I have never known or imagined. Where The Glass Castle
was me and my childhood and my life, this was the alien landscape of our past – of the weirdness, bravery, and cruelty of American genealogy. But, if I had expected that surprise of something genius wrapped in an off-putting cover, and if I had counted on that, I think I would have been a little disappointed, like a lot of people were. I was the opposite of disappointed. This book was spectacular.
I know a lot of people treat their own personal histories as though they are a social faux pas. We hesitate to say what makes us who we are and pretend that we magically dropped into our successes and failures, that we were never victims, that we were always proper and never broken. And, while I would never encourage self-indulgence, there is nothing more beautiful to me than personal histories. These stories of floods, horseback rides, men with backup families, backbreaking work, and fierce family loyalty are that magic to me. Those are the magic that dropped us here, and I want to know and understand it all.