My mother-in-law recently handed me this book and said, “I know you don’t normally read fiction but you should read this book. I think you’ll like it.”
She was right.
Jeannette Walls’ writes a beautifully engaging story. In her grandmother’s voice, Walls tells the story of her grandmother’s life growing up in west Texas, New Mexico, and later in life in Arizona. Lily Casey Smith was the oldest of three children. Lily, her younger brother, Buster, and younger sister, Helen, were each challenged by the tough conditions of living in sod houses, seasons of drought and flash floods, a father who thrived from time to time on taking others to court, and a mother who drew back from life finding the harshness of ranch living overwhelming.
Of all the Lily Casey stories, the following is the one that we’ll remain with me long after I put this book on the shelf. At fifteen, after her father withdrew her from boarding school because he’d spent her tuition money on four Great Danes for breeding purposes, Lily secured a teaching job in northern Arizona and headed out on her own. She saddled up her favorite “half broke horse,” Patches, and traveled alone from outside Roswell, New Mexico to north of Flagstaff Arizona carrying only hardtack, biscuits, and the pearl handled gun her father put her hands as she left the KC Hondo Ranch. She had been hired as a teacher at a school near Red Lakes just south of the Grand Canyon. The journey took her twenty-eight days. In her lifetime she would make this trip a total of three times.
Even though this book is classified as fiction, it is referred to as a “True Life Novel.” So, I am inclined to believe this story of Lily’s ride has some factual basis. In her author notes, Ms. Walls clarifies that even though she remembers hearing stories about her grandmother and reading a number of the stories documented in other books, she had to fill in the gaps and the fine details of her grandmother’s life. She concludes, “…the only honest thing to do is to call the book a novel.”
As a result, believing the story to be essentially true, I took out my atlas and began to try and piece together where Lily had gone, what trail had she followed to Red Lakes. It was possible from a few of the details in the book to know that she headed northwest from Roswell to Albuquerque, Gallup, on to the Painted Cliffs near the border with Arizona and then across the Navajo Reservation and finally to Flagstaff. On her first journey she tells of finding food in the settlements she passed through, roughly a day apart.
I found Lily’s self-possessed strength at fifteen years of age and faith in her ability to strike out on her own, riding approximately 500 miles across an often barren desert, beyond my ability to imagine for myself at fifteen. In reading her story, it appears from early in her life Lily inherently displayed the maturity of adult. She cared for her siblings and her mother; and even testified in court for her father in a dispute with a neighbor over the killing of the four Great Danes. And then for whatever reasons, her father supported her ride to northern Arizona slipping that pearl handled gun in her hands believing that Lily would surely be successful in taking care of herself. With a mix of a “can-do” attitude, a reason to strike out on her own, and perhaps good luck, Lily safely rode into Red Lakes and began teaching school children, some of which weren’t much younger than she.
I wasn’t surprised that I liked the book so much: for the most part, the life of Lily was true. Ms. Walls succeeds in writing a compelling story about the survival of her grandmother in a barren and challenging Western landscape. I believe anyone who imagines that strength and faith in oneself can and does achieve great things will enjoy the story she has told.