Book review: Jeannette Walls’ “Half Broke Horses”

This weekend I finished reading Jeannette Wall’s Half Broke Horses. Good book.

Walls captures Lily’s voice, the sound of the person she describes as “a tough, leathery, woman who always yelled…”  The tone of voice in the novel, written in the first person, is distinctly different from Wall’s voice in The Glass Castle. Memoirists don’t have to be able to write in different voices, but novelists should. Walls proves she has that gift.

It’s intriguing to see Rosemary, the mother character in The Glass Castle, emerge from toddler to teen to mother of Jeannette–the cast assembled and ready for the curtain to rise on Wall’s contribution to the genre of Awful Childhood Memoir.

But what’s really interesting–what made me pick up the book–is that Walls describes Half Broke Horses as an autobiographical novel. In an Author’s Note at the conclusion of the book, Walls explains why:

I wrote the story in the first person because I wanted to capture Lily’s distinctive voice, which I clearly recall. At the time I didn’t think of the book as fiction. Lily Casey Smith was a very real woman, and to say I created her or the events of her life is giving me more credit than I’m 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–and I’ve changed a few names to protect people’s privacy–the only honest thing to do is to call the book a novel.

I’m very interested in that line between nonfiction and fiction.

Last week I went to hear a friend-of-friend read excerpts from an autobiographical novel she is working on. It concerns her romance with an Iranian revolutionary in the 1970s. In the Q&A that followed, one attendee asked, “how much is autobiography?” She replied, “The story stands by itself. It’s truth comes from that. We use our lives because they’re juicy, they’re what we know.” I don’t fully understand her reasons for couching her work as fiction rather than memoir, but I assume she needs to place a protective cloak around herself or others. However, she’s struggling to craft good fiction. Her fidelity to the truth of her experience makes it hard for her to choose what to leave in and what to leave out.

It’s becoming clear to me that there are a lot of reasons for a memoirist to accept the call to cross the line into fiction, chief among them the freedom to tell a good story, unencumbered by unruly facts.

Are there elements in your life story that you might want to present as fiction, perhaps because you don’t remember enough to call it nonfiction, need to change elements to protect others you care about, or simply feel an urge to mess with truth to make the story work as literature?

You could try your hand at fiction as Jeannette Walls did, working with the juicy life you know. Just please, be honest with yourself and clear with others about which side of that thin bright line–truth or fiction–your work falls on.

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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