Fictionalizing Family History: Jeannette Walls Show Us How

by Memoir Mentor on November 27, 2011

Those of us who feel the call to record the lives of others have to decide the best way to tell our story: first person or third?; present tense or past?; chronologically, episodically, or something else?

The options can seem endless and confusing when we consider them, yet our choices are often constrained–or dictated–by the amount of information at our disposal, our writing skills, and the breadth of our imagination. Some fortunate personal historians are blessed with an abundance of all three, and then it becomes a case of selecting a narrative approach that best capitalizes on the character and personality of the story’s subject.

I’ve been thinking about these issues recently since completing Jeannette Walls’ magnificent Half Broke Horses, a “true-life novel” about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, the indomitable mother of the memorable hippy-artist “mother” showcased in Wall’s blockbuster memoir The Glass Castle. Everyone I know in the memoir world has read The Glass Castle. It’s the best-selling memoir of all time for good reason, and I’m sure I’ve made Walls a little richer by the number of times I’ve recommended her book to someone struggling with the best way to write about family skeletons and other prickly people–for Walls shows us how in that wonderful book.

Half Broke Horses is a different kind of book. Walls calls her grandmother a character, and she is–a no-nonsense, resilient, courageous, brainy, gun-toting, plane-flying, horse-breaking mother of two, decades ahead of her time. As a family historian, how would you showcase a woman like this without watering her down or making her a caricature? I’m sure Walls pondered this question long and hard.

Lily died when Walls was eight, but, along with her other pursuits, Lily had been a great story teller, continually repeating detailed anecdotes about her life to her daughter, the hippy artist, who then told them to Walls. The author says she tried tracking down the truth of some of those anecdotes and, except for a few details, was never able to disprove them.

Walls had to know she was sitting on a dynamite story, but how to tell it? She could write it from her own point of view: “My fabulous grandmother told me she took flying lessons when she was thirty-nine and began working as a freelance bush pilot. When I didn’t believe her, she showed me pictures of herself sitting in the cockpit of a beat-up twin-engine, crop-duster.”

Or Walls could choose to tell it from the classic, third-person, biographer’s point of view: “When Lily was fifteen, she rode her pony, alone, 500 miles to Red Lake, Arizona, to her first teaching job, taking with her a toothbrush, change of underwear, presentable dress, a comb, canteen, bedroll, and a pearl-handled six-shooter.”

These would have been traditional, acceptable approaches to writing a family history narrative. But Walls, whose mother said was born with her grandmother’s gumption, decided on a different approach. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Walls explains that she “saw the book more in the vein of an oral history…and undertaken with the storyteller’s traditional liberties.”

Thinking oral history, Walls fashioned a first-person narrative with the grandmother telling the story in her own voice. Walls says, “I wanted to capture Lily’s distinctive voice, which I clearly recall.” She added, “…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 call the book a novel.”

It reads like a legitimate oral history, though. Walls’ memory and substantial storytelling skills created an unforgettable narrative voice that allows Lily Smith to be Lily Smith, with all her no-nonsense, bossy charm. All the way through Half Broke Horses, I kept thinking how short-changed I would have been had Walls chosen a more traditional approach. Listen to Lily’s voice:

“I expected those Brooklyn gals to be tough and smart, and maybe even practicing socialists, but instead they were all ninnies who wore too much makeup and kept complaining about the Arizona heat, the hearse’s uncomfortable buggy seats, and the fact that there was no place in the entire state to get a good egg cream. They had these thick Brooklyn accents, and I had to fight the temptation to correct their atrocious pronunciation.”

Can you imagine the work and creativity required to narrate a life story with a voice like this, staying true to its character to the end?

In case you haven’t guessed, I recommend this book. Add it to your Christmas list. You’ll love Lily Smith, you’ll be inspired by her story, and you’ll be able to assess for yourself the freedom and rewards of a fictionalized approach to family history.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rhonda December 1, 2011 at 9:41 am

I loved this book. I noticed we’ve read a lot of the same books. The book I’m recommending now is “The Dirty Live: On Farming, Food and Love” by Kristing Kimball. You might enjoy it!

2 Memoir Mentor December 1, 2011 at 9:46 am

Thanks for the recommendation, Rhonda. I’ll add it to my list. I assume it’s a memoir?

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