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Jeannette Walls
Jeannette Walls

From Saturday's Books section

She was tall in the saddle Add to ...

For readers who loved The Glass Castle, as I did, this "true-life novel" takes us farther back in time and up the genetic life-stream on which Walls's improvident parents floated their merry way. It is the story of Walls's grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, born in West Texas in 1901. The first-person story begins with a flash flood; children in what might well be a family tree, clinging to the branches after a narrow escape from drowning, looking down on floodwaters rampaging across a dry land. What better metaphor?

Lily's story begins there and goes on at about the same pace into tornados, half-broke horses, a hard-bought education, Chicago, a family suicide, bootlegging, two marriages and life on a ranch in New Mexico with small children in hand. Walls has written the book in the first person as if Lily herself were telling her own story, an act of literary ventriloquism, and as such it is expertly done. But any story told in the first person has serious limits, and not all of them have been overcome in this narrative.

When, after the flood, the Casey children manage to wade through the mud to the family homestead on Salt Draw, their parents rush out and cry, "We were so worried about you!" And why were they not out looking for them, the reader asks. After all, the children spent the night in the tree while a West Texas flash flood nearly swept them away. But those are the parameters of this book; we are restrained to Lily's first-person narrative and she never asks. On the other hand, she rarely complains.

Lily comes alive in this book, and is as unpredictable as any half-broke horse in West Texas. Like Walls's memoir about her parents, this story leaves you wondering why people do the things they do, but at the same time grateful that they have done them, and that you are reading about them in a book and not living through them. Lily's remarkably beautiful face appears on the cover, a woman sending her genes for both beauty and intensity into the generations to come.

Her father was determined to raise peacocks in the wastes of West Texas for "the carriage trade." Since there was no carriage trade, he broke and trained carriage horses and wrote tirelessly on a book about Billy the Kid, while the peacocks multiplied and pecked the children. After the big peacock failure, they moved back to New Mexico and he went into watermelons and more carriage horses, just when the automobile began to take over the roads.

Lily makes disastrous choices and flings herself into actions that leave the reader admiring and astounded

He had a limp and a speech impediment and had spent three years in prison for homicide, of which he was eventually acquitted. His own father had been shot dead in the main street of Lincoln, N.M., over an $8 debt. I sympathize; one of my great-great uncles was shot dead in the streets of Grandin, Mo., in an argument over fish. Don't ask. Life is crazier than is generally reported and that is what Walls's forebears are here to tell us - or how they are remembered in their Dickensian unpredictability - and it is why her family memoirs make such absorbing reading.

It is difficult to remember, when reading this book, that it is reconstructed vernacular speech; it is as convincing and rapid as if transcribed from tape, and has all the earmarks of direct speech, a skilled reproduction presented as raw evidence. Lily makes disastrous choices and flings herself into actions that leave the reader admiring and astounded, but Walls remains true to Lily's reconstructed character, and never intrudes. Lily goes on at a breakneck pace without reflection or regret or self-analysis, and no social anxieties whatever, whether driving a hearse for a school bus, cadging gasoline from strangers at truck stops or bootlegging.

This is refreshing, but in some ways limiting. After Lily is fired from a teaching position for the third time, her husband says, "These showdowns are becoming a pattern." But that is the only outside view we get. It is true to life, with the same clichés and improbabilities that occur in many narratives, but Walls has not beautified the stories of her grandmother, most of which came from her own mother.

When Lily sends her daughter Rosemary (Walls's mother) to a Catholic girls school, she reports that the other girls picked on her; "They called her 'yokel,' 'bumpkin' and 'farmer's daughter,' and when my husband Jim donated fifty pounds of beef jerky to the school, they dismissed it as 'cowboy meat' and refused to eat it, so the nuns threw it away.

"Rosemary did stand up for herself. One night when she was doing the dishes, a classmate started teasing her about her father, saying, 'Your dad thinks he's John Wayne.'

"'My dad makes John Wayne look like a pussy,' Rosemary replied, and dunked the girl's head in the dishwater."

One conventional ending of a life story is the point of self-knowledge at which a character finds something out about himself or herself as a result of some crucial experience. But Walls's grandmother has had so many crucial experiences, and has blazed through all of them with such unrelenting energy, that this sort of conventional ending seems irrelevant. What Lily truly discovers at the end is the author of her story, granddaughter Jeannette Walls as a newborn baby, clinging to her finger. And therein lies a tale.

Paulette Jiles lives on a small ranch near San Antonio, Tex. Her most recent book is The Color of Lightning.

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