Hannibal Free Public Library

Half-Broke Horses

Jeannette Walls

February 28, 2011

This novel is tells the story of the author’s grandmother. By age six, Lily was helping her father break horses. At fifteen, she left home to teach in a frontier town — riding five hundred miles on her pony, all alone, to get to her job. She learned to drive a car and fly a plane, and, with her husband, ran a vast ranch in Arizona . She raised two children, one of whom is Jeannette's memorable mother, Rosemary Smith Walls, unforgettably portrayed in The Glass Castle. Lily survived tornadoes, droughts, floods, the Great Depression, and the most heartbreaking personal tragedy. She bristled at prejudice of all kinds — against women, Native Americans, and anyone else who didn't fit the mold. 

 Discussion Questions  

  1. Walls calls Half Broke Horses a “true life novel.” In her author’s note, she explains why.  Do you think you are closer to Lily because you get her story in her own voice?  What is your response to the first person voice of the book? What do you think of the “true life” genre?
  2. Lily comes off as tough and resilient, but there are moments in this book of vast heartbreak, where you see her façade crack. How does the author handle the death of Lily’s friend in Chicago ? Her first husband’s duplicity? Her sister’s suicide? Her suspicions of her husband Jim? 
  1. When Lily’s father dies, Rosemary is embarrassed to be seen driving with a corpse.  What does Lily’s reaction to this behavior show about her character? What effect do you think her mother’s attitude had on Rosemary?
  1. Following Helen’s suicide, Lily says, “When people kill themselves, they think they’re ending the pain, but all they're doing is passing it on to those they leave behind.”  Do you agree with this statement?
  1. On more than one occasion, Lily is fired from a teaching position for refusing to back down from what she believes in. Do you applaud Lily’s moral conviction in these instances? Or did you hope that Lily would learn to compromise? 
  1. Lily has high expectations for her children, from sending them off to boarding school despite their protests to enforcing strict rules for keeping animals as pets.  Are Lily’s expectations of her children particularly high or rather a reflection of the times?
  1. Discuss Lily’s husband Jim. How does his personality complement her strong nature? 
  1. Examine Lily’s relationship with her daughter, Rosemary, and, in The Glass Castle, Rosemary’s relationship with Jeannette. How does each generation try to compensate for the one before? How does each mother try to avoid the mistakes or pain imposed upon her by her own mother?
  1. Half Broke Horses is said to be Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, as riveting and dramatic as Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa or Beryl Markham'sWest with the Night.  Do you agree?

Adapted from http://www.litlovers.com/guide_half_broke_horses.html