'Half Broke Horses' features alumna Lily Casey Smith, '44

By Angele Anderfuren

half broke horsesAlumna Lily Casey Smith, ’44 BS, is the subject of the newest novel by Jeannette Walls, Half Broke Horses. The “true-life” story explores the life of Walls’ grandmother Lily and her struggles to overcome all and become a teacher. She attended Northern Arizona State Teachers College (now known as NAU) first in 1927 for a year until President Gammage found a teaching job for her in Red Lake. She left school to pursue teaching but always longed to get her diploma. That happened in 1944. Half Broke Horses captures the strong pioneering spirit of Lily (as well as other women of the West from her day). We recently interviewed Jeanette Walls, granddaughter of Lily, (photo below right) to talk to her about her book and our alumna. (This article is a continuation of the story from our fall 2012 Pine magazine. The * notes where the new material begins, for those of you coming to this page from the magazine link.)jeannette walls

Pine: In the author’s note, you wrote that your grandma Lily died when you were 8 years old. What was it about her that captivated you at that young age and inspired your story on her life?

Jeannette: If you met her one time, you would never forget her. She just blew into a room. She didn’t say anything. She shouted. She sang, she danced. She would grab us out of a chair and just start dancing with us.

But above all Lily was an educator. Education was the most important thing to her. She was always hammering the need for an education. I think she did what a good teacher did, she planted the seed.

I wrote the book without seeing any pictures of her when she was young.  After I wrote the book, I got in touch with my cousin who had a lot of photos of her and I was very happy to see that she looked exactly like she had in my mind.

Since the book has come out, I’ve come across a lot of people she taught. She was a great teacher and she left an indelible impression on me. I didn’t spend that much time with her. We had such a nomadic life. We would just drop in on Lily and every time she would tell me all these things I had to remember, mostly the importance of education and of listening to your teacher.

lily casey smith

I sat down to write the book about my mother because I wanted to interview the subject of my book and use Lily’s story as the back story but my mom insisted it was Lily who led the more interesting life. When I sat down to tell it, I thought my mom was absolutely right. Lily’s story was the more interesting story. She came from this time and place when it was so hard for women. It was hard for everybody though. When I traveled around for my book Glass Castle, so many people came up to me and said I’m so strong. That they couldn’t have grown up the way that I did, without indoor plumbing and such. I was very flattered by the compliment but I wasn’t alone. I wanted to harken back to a time when no one had indoor plumbing and it was a very tough life all around. And they survived. They were tough about it but they did get by. I love modern amenities and luxuries. But I wanted to remind people of their ancestors, just a few generations ago, that didn’t have these conveniences.

One of the things about Lily was that she’s so strong, so resilient, so tough. Even though she is all these things, she’s also very ordinary. So many people have come up to me and said my great grandmother was also born around here in 1900 and fought tooth and nail to get an education and become a teacher. That’s a story that’s familiar to a lot of people and so that’s one of the things that I really loved about it.

There were so many people in the west at that time like this. There’s this pocket of America with these tough old broads, and I say that with a lot of affection, that did whatever it took to survive. There was a lot of them out west and they were strong, resilient and I think it is important that we don’t forget these stories. I think they are undervalued because the people that lived them didn’t think them as triumphant. In some ways they thought them as shameful because they wanted the lives of luxury. But let’s not forget that there’s so many of these stories. I encourage people – don’t forget your history. When we’re celebrating our great history, don’t forget to look at your own history. You’ll find these amazing stories.

*Pine: Lily seems to have had a great pioneering spirit, a will to achieve and better herself, despite any odds. That spirit fits so well in other stories and accounts of women pioneers at that time that we’ve read about here at our university. The way you captured her and brought her back to life in this book, you must feel a connection with that time frame here in Arizona.

Jeannette: I do feel connected with that time in Arizona. I loved the harshness of the life. Lily was a hard woman and she had to be. She came from a hard part of the country with a lot of rocks and not a lot of water or education. It is incredibly beautiful but if you’re a wuss you’re not going to make it there.

When I tried to write the book in my mother’s voice, I found I couldn’t do it. When I tried to write in Lily’s voice, it just came to me. We are a kindred spirit and I think Lily recognized that in me. And I think that’s why her voice came so easily to me writing this book.

I remember Lily. I remember her words, her actions. I remember she was just full of life and energy… just a fighting spirit. She embodies the American spirit. This country was settled by people like Lily who just wouldn’t take no for an answer and wouldn’t let hardships get them down. She went out and made the world adapt to her. I think she was an extraordinary woman.  I think that she was also very much a reflection of the land she grew up in. She thought she could be a city girl. She thought she’d like it a little further east in Chicago but she found it just wasn’t for her. She was an Arizona girl, a southwest girl.

Anything our alumni or people who might have a great grandma that went to school with her, might be interested in particularly about her book?

I hope that people that read Lily’s story have the courage to look into their own stories. I hope that they are inspired to look into their own stories and value them. I hope that they also take the time to stop and think about the things that so many of us take for granted, like an education. Mom told me so many times how important it was for Lily to get that diploma. She busted her behind doing that. Grady Gammage [president of our school from 1926-33] was absolutely instrumental in helping her. He had himself a bit of a 'pull yourself up by your own bootstraps' career and I think he was on the lookout to help people on the same path. Mom told me that he reached out to Lily a number of times to help her. It’s a real lesson on the pay it forward sort of a thing. Once you’ve made it, look for people in a similar situation.

Read more about Half Broke Horses and read/listen to excerpts of the book at the publisher’s website. Connect with Jeannette on her Facebook author fan page.