I don’t read much nonfiction, let alone memoirs, but when a book keeps popping up on “best of” lists and it seems like everyone, including my own husband, is interested in one particular memoir, I can’t resist either. And to be fair, the premise sounds almost fictional anyway– a girl from Idaho with basically zero education and crazy doomsday-prepping, government-distrusting parents somehow pulls herself out of her father’s scrapyard and into places like Harvard and Oxford. And it’s a true story.
Tara Westover was born in Idaho to a father who deals in scrap metal and builds barns for a living and a mother who was a homemaker but later became a midwife and alternative healer. Tara recounts parts of her childhood as she works at her family’s businesses alongside her siblings. Tara watches her older siblings grow up and either leave the farm or stay in the tight-knit Mormon community. As Tara grows older, she sees more and more of the outside world. This new perspective affects her complacency at home. Despite having very little formal education, Tara scores high enough to go to BYU. Her hunger for knowledge only increases out in the real world, but she quickly feels out of place in “normal” society. Tara struggles with her identity and wrestles with the expectations her parents had for her, all while trying to become educated.
This can be a tough book to read if mental illness, physical/emotional abuse, manipulation by a loved one, parental expectations/guilt are things you also struggle with. I would say that I am past many of those hurdles because of therapy, but I acknowledge that I could not have read this book a few years earlier without it impacting my mental state in a negative way. So, I’d definitely consider this a trigger warning for all of the aforementioned things!
The book is very, very readable. So, even if nonfiction intimidates you a bit, I would still suggest reading this. At times it reads like a thriller and is hard to put down. While flipping the pages, I asked questions like, will Tara be OK? Will her family come around? Is that person going to hurt her? Tara Westover is a talented writer. She is very good at pulling the reader into her world and not letting them ago until she has finished her story. Whenever I read a memoir that recounts many past events, I definitely question how the author could remember so much in vivid detail to retell it on the page. I liked that Tara admitted when she couldn’t remember something or when her siblings remembered the same event differently. She also kept a journal for most of the events later in the novel. This helps her credibility, in my opinion, and I respect when a writer admits that they can’t remember something instead of making something up and embellishing it for effect.
I know a few people who have read this memoir and said that they simply didn’t believe it. Well, it sounds believable to me. I’m from the middle of nowhere in America too (though not to Tara’s extent), and I know people and families very much like Tara’s who are paranoid, prep for the end of days, or become a little too fixated on religious visions. It certainly happens, but that doesn’t mean everyone who cans their own food is struggling with reality, either. In fact, if you do not know much about extremes of rural America, read this book, but keep in mind the majority of us aren’t crazy.
The only thing about her book that I question is how she got adjusted to life outside her parents’ community and how exactly she got into all of these school and programs. She, of course, mentions a lot of it– scholarships, testing into schools, intense studying, awkward encounters with other students and teachers, etc.– but I still feel that she could have been a little more clear about those aspects of her life in order to fend off more “unbelievers” of her story. However, I am sure that I can find that detailed information elsewhere online, and I am also sure that reading in depth about college entrance practices and the paperwork that goes along with it isn’t very compelling.
With all that being said, this is a book that is well worth just about anyone’s time. You’ll learn more about rural America and some of the strangeness that can come along with being so isolated from society for one thing. But beyond all that, Tara shares a lot of the lessons she has learned, and they can be quite valuable. As I said, she struggles with being who she wants to be and who her parents thinks she should be. She also struggles with leaving home and cutting out toxic people. Her struggles are very relatable at their core, even if her circumstances are very different from yours or mine. I gave Educated four out of five stars.