Monday, April 25, 2011

Jeannette Walls is getting in touch with her inner-'tough old broad'

Originally printed September 10, 2010.

Jeannette Walls is on a campaign to get people to learn more about their ancestors.

"Everyone talks about getting in touch with their inner child," Walls said during a phone interview last week. "I want people to get in touch with their inner 'tough old coot' or 'tough old broad.'"

During these uncertain economic times, Walls explained, it's more important than ever for people to remember that they can survive almost anything.

That why -- in her bestselling "Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel" -- Walls decided to tell the story of the toughest old broad in her family tree: her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, who died when Walls was a child.

"We're all descendants of people who came to America to get away from things like the potato famine ... or from the Nazis," Walls said. "People who did the back-breaking work that needed to be done. ... We've all got that blood running through our veins. It's good to get in touch with it."

Walls originally set out to tell her mother's story -- if only to explain why her college-educated, strong-willed, eternally-optimistic mother chose to marry an alcoholic and allow her family to lead the life of deprivation that Walls described in her first memoir, "The Glass Castle." But throughout the interview process, Walls's mother kept saying that Lily's story was the real family back-story that needed to be told.

Whether it's the story of a 9-year-old Lily saving her siblings from a flash flood, or the story of Lily leaving home to ride 500 miles on her pony to a rural teaching job, or the many stories of Lily uprooting her own family from one adventure to another, Walls found the tales from her grandmother's life to be as compelling as her mother promised they would be.

"When I was touring on behalf of 'The Glass Castle,'" Walls said of her first memoir, "people would say how amazed they were that I was able to survive in such hardship. I was flattered by the compliment, but it's really nonsense. I now live in a home with all the modern conveniences, but it wasn't so long ago that nobody had these luxuries. ... Lily reminds us of that."

At first, Walls tried telling Lily's story in her mother's voice.

"I have no imagination," Walls said. "I'm one of those people that need to color within the lines. ... So mom's recollections were gifts to me. Jewels."

But she soon found that -- no matter how much love and respect she wanted to convey through her mother's perspective -- it always sounded like she was mocking her mother.

"Personalities tend to skip a generation," Walls said. "Lily was much less passive than my mother. She was always about taming the land and the critters and the children."

And as soon as Walls started letting her inner tough old broad start telling the stories directly, the prequel memoir took off.

"I was born in a dugout on the banks of Salt Draw in 1901," narrates Walls' Lily, "the year after Dad got out of prison, where he'd been serving time on that trumped-up murder charge."

Rather than diminish the flow of the narrative by constantly checking all the details of family lore against more traditional scholarly accounts, Walls decided to offer her grandmother's story as a "True-Life Novel." That gave her the artistic license necessarily to fill in some of the holes left in her mother's accounts.

The result is a powerful, personal story that lives up to its billing as "Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults."

Press-Citizen Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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