I read the author's memoir, The Glass Castle, several years ago and quite liked it. Now, I barely the details of the book, though it was about Walls's upbringing and childhood with her less than stable parents. Her parents were erratic which led to both fun exciting adventures as well as poverty. In this book, Walls takes the family stories about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, and weaves them into a "true life novel."
Walls uses the stories that she and her mother remember about her grandmother to create this woman's life story. Since it is based on family myth, Walls doesn't title the story as a biography. The book reads very much like an oral history - it is told in Lily's voice in chronological order, but as a reader I could easily imagine that all the chapters were individual stories told at varying times to her daughter who then helped her own daughter place them in order.
In many ways, Lily feels like a portrayal of the quintessential (and possibly even stereotypical) frontier woman. She grew up in Texas and New Mexico; it was a tough life but her family had a roof (except when the tornados or flash floods took them away) and food. Still, there wasn't enough money to send her to school for more than a semester due to her father's schemes, though he made sure to home school his children with his strong views. Her mother tries to be a genteel lady in a tough environment, leaving Lily her fair share of responsibility early on. However, this clearly helps her since she is very strong-willed and independent as a result, leaving for Arizona to teach at fifteen (there was a teacher shortage due to the First World War) despite her lack of degree. Upon the return of the soldiers from the homefront, Lily finds herself out of a job and enroute to Chicago for better opportunities. While she attends night school and receives her high school diploma in Chicago, for the most part, it seems like an interlude in her life that kept her off track. She develops a close friendship with a factory worker who dies in an accident, and marries a man that turns out to already have a wife and family. Eventually, she returns west to take a teacher certification course, and finds her place back in the more rough and tumble life in Arizona.
While at first things go well in her new position, she soon finds further hardship before marrying and settling down with Jim Smith, which eventually leads to her running a cattle ranch. Lily definitely thinks of herself in the right in most things, and is portrayed as someone with strong beliefs that occasionally get her in trouble (or fired). No matter what difficulties she faces, she simply bucks up and continues to her new venture. This portrayal as well as the various occupations she faces make her seem both ordinary and extraordinary. On the one hand, her strength and determination are admirable and seem even more commendable for a woman in that time but based on other depictions (both fictional and non-fictional) of women in the West, it seems like her work ethic and adventures are far from unique. While she generally feels like she did the best she could and is unapologetic for any mistakes she may have made (she doesn't reflect on too many), Walls also portrays the parts of her grandmother that a modern day audience would easily frown upon such as her use of corporal punishment as a teacher.
While I remember little of the details of The Glass Castle, it does cast clarity on the lives her descendants lived. With such a strict and demanding mother, it is easy to see why Rosemary would choose a more hippie-like and unsettled life style in rebellion. Despite this, since much of the information for this book came from Rosemary, it is clear that Rosemary and Jeannette admired Lily, a strong feminist woman, even if she didn't want to be her or agree with her.