[from my 2018 Goodreads review]
Tara’s family lives mostly off the grid in rural Idaho, subject to her father’s extreme brand of Mormonism-inspired anticipation of the End of Days. She and her siblings have only as much education as they have ambition to school themselves. When she manages to finagle her way into BYU, Tara has never heard of the Holocaust and doesn’t know how to study from a textbook. It’s a miracle she can even read.
A page-turner I finished in a day, but two days later I’m still uncertain what to think about it. I can say without equivocation that this book is a riveting read that inspires equal parts horror and respect.
Horror because although her father says a woman’s job is in the home, evidently what that means is continually risking Tara’s life (and the lives of her brothers, the ones incapable of escaping this homegrown sweatshop) with whatever new piece of equipment he acquires and then operates with absolutely no concept of safety. When, not if, one of his sons gets hurt, it’s all God’s plan. When he finally sets himself on fire and his wife “saves” him with essential oils, he is not in the least bit humbled by his own carelessness and ignorance. No, the neighbors decide it was a miracle so he parlays his wife’s homeopathy skills into a money-making machine.
Respect, because Tara perforce becomes utterly capable at pretty much everything as a matter of survival, and I mean that as her own personal survival, not her family’s surviving the Apocalypse. Respect, because however many times her father covertly, her brother overtly and her mother by complicity tried to kill her, she survived. I don’t know many who could have.
Still, I’m not sure Westover is entirely reliable as a narrator. For one thing, she’s such an apologist for her father. When she finally escapes to college she takes beginning psychology and hears the definition of bipolar for the first time. She leaps on the notion that it isn’t his fault; he’s crazy, not evil. He’s just nuts when he insists that a woman’s only job is marriage, but is always happy to take money from her sister when her sister starts working outside the home. He’s just nuts when he ignores testimony from herself and her sister about her brother’s abuse of them.
Although he has his grace moments, too, her father, if they are few and far between. He never misses one of Tara’s performances when she’s cast in musicals. He punishes her for studying but he doesn’t throw out the books she’s reading. Her mother’s redemptive moments are even fewer and farther between, but then she’s evolved her own method of survival, and really, keeping herself inside the house saved her the physical risks her husband put the kids through.
Her first line reads
This book is not about Mormonism.
It so is.
”If you were a woman,’ I asked, “would you still study law?”
Josh didn’t look up. “If I were a woman,” he said, “I wouldn’t want to study it.”
I could quote on, quote ever, but I’ll spare you. Tara’s eventual escape requires she accept her father, mother and four of her siblings shunning her from thenceforward. It’s hard for her because despite all, she still loves them. It is also necessary. Her father taught her survival skills, all right, although I don’t think this result was quite what he had in mind. Lucky for Tara.
One note: The heroes of this book are three teachers, her dance teacher when she was a kid, her history teacher at BYU, and her tutor at Cambridge. All three are exemplars of their profession. Tara Westover would not be who she is today without them.
Note on 2/1/19: A comparison of Westover’s Educated and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in the NYT here, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/01/op….
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.