Book Review by Anne McLeod
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)
Author Tara Westover’s early years were spent in rural Idaho, where she grew up in a home at the foot of a mountain. Life for Tara and her six siblings was far from idyllic though, as their father Gene (a pseudonym) was certain that end times were upon them and insisted that the family prepare for an apocalyptic world in which they alone among their neighbors would have food, gasoline, and other necessities. Their fellow Mormons listen politely to Gene’s rants before gently changing the subject.
Westover’s memoir can be painful to read, as her childhood included a series of car wrecks and accidents in the family’s junkyard, where she and the other children were put to work. (Only the older children ever attended school or even received the most minimal homeschooling.) Although he had always been an iconoclast, over time Gene’s personality changed, making him susceptible to severe mood swings and erratic behavior that repeatedly put the family at risk.
Gene’s failure to consider the most basic rules of personal safety results in serious injuries for most of the family over the years. His wife, whom Westover calls Faye in the book, is a midwife and herbalist and is often responsible for treating the family’s awful wounds, as they rarely seek medical care.
Westover also details the physical and psychological abuse she experienced from her brother Shawn, who terrorized her throughout her teens. To escape her brother and the hazards of working in the junkyard, Tara decides to follow her older brother Tyler’s path and go to college at the age of sixteen, despite her lack of a high school diploma. Her strong reading skills and sheer determination enable her to master just enough math to pass the ACT, thanks to some tutoring by Tyler and even a little grudging assistance with trigonometry from her father.
This second part of the book describes Westover’s struggles to find her footing academically and socially at Brigham Young University. Despite knowing nothing of history (the Holocaust and the Civil Rights movement were both new to her), she is drawn to the study of world affairs, something that her upbringing would condemn as “unwomanly.” Her world expands further when a sympathetic professor encouraged her to apply for his study abroad program at Cambridge University.
There she came to recognize the value of her own perspectives, a radical departure from years spent under her father’s thumb. When her professor quotes a colleague who has described Westover as “pure gold,” she demurs. “This is a magical place … Everything shines here.”
“You must stop thinking like that,” Dr. Kerry said, his voice raised. “You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is always who you were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you.”
When Westover grapples in the final part of the book with reconciling her past and present, her family’s world and her much wider world, she navigates a painful journey home, unsure what reconciliation might ultimately mean.
Educated is one of the most riveting books I read in 2018. Similar to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle: A Memoir, with its harrowing descriptions of the effects of untreated mental illness on family dynamics, it also has echoes of Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood in its evocative description of natural beauty juxtaposed alongside a junkyard.
Educated is available for check out at the Moon Lake Community Library.