My book club recently discussed Tara Westover’s first book, Educated, a memoir recounting her youth in a remote mountain area in Idaho where she had no birth certificate and was not allowed to go to school. The book has received a great deal of positive reviews in the press and I knew I wanted to read it at some point, to find out if it lives up to the hype.
Westover didn’t set foot in a classroom until she was 17 years old. Growing up, she worked with her father and siblings collecting and selling scrap metal and other odd jobs without protective equipment within a Mormon household. On occasion her mother might teach her basic arithmetic and reading, but her father discouraged that with the insinuation that females were made to help around the house. Her mother was a midwife and healer who produced various tinctures with herbs and oils to cure all ills.
Distrusting mainstream services such as schools and doctors, her father believed that his family needed to be prepared for the End of Days, and as a result, had his wife and children canning as much food as possible to be hidden and stored away. That’s not the only thing they kept stored for the future in case of government tyranny – they had ammunition and weapons and other food staples, bug-out bags, ready to be used in an instant. While he told his children that the government was evil, he was exceedingly careless about his children’s physical safety, and when they were injured in horrific ways, he’d tell them, “go see your mother so she can cure you.”
Westover also faced many instances of verbal, psychological, and physical abuse by her father and her brothers, and over time she begins to understand why. Having grown up in modern suburban surroundings, I was baffled as to how anyone could withstand such abuse, refuse going to a doctor or get an education, and I realize I’m very lucky.
Westover eloquently describes her cringe-worthy experiences, having gradually ascertained what she was missing as she moved into her teens. She saw some of her brothers leave and either get jobs or an education, which inspired her to teach herself to write, study, and learn enough to where she could sit in a high school classroom. Westover writes with great clarity about the earlier part of her life, where she shares her family’s history, and as she gradually sees that the outside world isn’t like hers, she feels terrified long before she realizes she might have something to offer.
I wanted to hear additional specifics as to how she was able to find such vested mentors and educators who helped propel her to achieve greater things: to apply to colleges and for scholarships and grants, and to focus on her academic work. After attending BYU, she returns often to her family in Idaho and each time I wondered why. That continued even into the years where she did post-graduate work at Cambridge and Oxford. Clearly, she wanted approval, and the fact that she might never get it tore at her emotionally.
Westover’s dramatic transformation is not only astonishing, it demonstrates bravery and the power of the human spirit, and yes, I’d say it lives up to the hype.