An informative back-to-back read

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 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.

Dad’s mother worked for the Farm Bureau in town…Dad would develop fierce opinions about women working, radical even for our rural Mormon community. “A woman’s place is in the home,” he would say every time he saw a married woman working in town.”


”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.”

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.

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.

Poverty doesn’t just happen; it’s engineered. Most laws are made by the privileged few to benefit their own class, and even those few representatives and bureaucrats of good intentions have no idea how life is lived on a scale so far beneath their own, so that the laws they pass to help never do and nearly always end in being punitive, which just helps to more institutionalize the poverty.

Smarsh is a fifth generation Kansas farm girl whose main goal from the time she was a child is to make a life for herself different from the grinding poverty in which she was raised. The story is told to the daughter she deliberately never had because she was fanatically determined to stop the cycle of teenage pregnancy, spousal abuse, and addiction that are the stories of the three previous generations of women who came before her.

I had remained partnered with my high school boyfriend all those years, even though he had never developed physical desire for me–a situation that was painful at the time but that I now see served my intentions perfectly.

With an unrelenting drumbeat of irrefutable evidence Smarsh proves again and again that poverty is a station in life that has been institutionalized by a government determined to do as little as possible for those who need help most, and then treat as nothing more than disposable. She goes back to her motivation to leave that life again and again throughout the book.

No child of mine would ever have to do what Dorothy, Betty, Jeannie, or I did.

Smarsh’s story leaves you with no illusions about hard work resulting in the achievement of the American Dream, because her family worked their asses off and still couldn’t afford health insurance and were the first to lose their jobs and homes in an economic downturn. More than hunger, more than homelessness, shame might be the worst part of poverty.

…financial poverty is the one shamed by society, culture, unchecked capitalism, public policy, our very way of speaking. If you’re poor in a wealthy place, common vocabulary suggests that economic failure is failure of the soul.

She conclusively proves that the contempt the haves have for the have-nots in American society is manifest and corrosive, including their own. The beneficiaries of a program she finds to help subsidize her graduate degree call themselves “White Trash Scholars.” She concludes

This country has failed its children…failed its own claims about democracy and humanity. The American Dream, in particular, sometimes seems more like a ghost haunting our way of thinking than like a sacred contract worth signing toward some future.

Given we live in a time when our government is more concerned with giving tax breaks to the rich than meals to kids who come hungry to school, it’s hard to refute her thesis.

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7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I read all of your reviews and so many of your suggested books. I am not sure I can read this one – yet – but I don’t know why. Maybe because it is so “real”. It isn’t anything like what I experienced growing up or as an adult. But it comes to close to what I see around me and by the Grace of God my children have so far escaped. I am a “boomer” at the very beginning of the cycle and my first born is barely hanging off the end of it. I think my generation is the last to see the building up of this country and a better way of life and my great grandchildren are seeing the falling apart. There is such a bigger divide between the haves and the have-nots now and it seems as if the Robber Barons are back. Breathing hurts.

    • You are right; both are very “real” books and not fun to read. I read both and a bunch more at a time when I was trying to understand what is going on in this country and in the world. I’m not looking to read any more of them.

  2. I read Tara Westover’s book some time ago and had the same reactions as you. Not a fun read but an eye opener, even if Westover is an unreliable narrator.

    I think I better try the Sarah Smarsh book now. I don’t expect it to be that much fun, either.

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