Educated by Tara Westover (Random House, 2018)
Close your eyes for a moment. Picture yourself sitting at your desk in the first grade. Did you like your teacher? What were you learning in school? Did you look forward to being with your friends in class and at recess? When each September came, were you sorry to see summer go, but excited at the prospect of a new school year?
Did you love going to school? What if you had not been allowed to go? What if your mother had taught you and your siblings at home and you didn’t have to take gym, eat nasty school lunches, or be confronted by bullies who made your life miserable? Would you have been better off?
Tara Westover, in her painfully exquisite memoir, Educated, describes the life of a child raised “in a jagged little patch of Idaho,” by a father who was a paranoid survivalist, and a mother who doctored the family with herbal remedies, no matter how life threatening the ailment. The victim of severe abuse by one of her six siblings, Westover managed to escape the grip that her father had on her, and forge a future that allowed for her corporeal, intellectual, and emotional freedom. This is the true miracle of the remarkable memoir.
Written in a prose so elegant it reads like poetry, Westover grabs the reader from the first page and refuses to let down in intensity until the last page. Here is a taste of the eloquence from the Prologue of the memoir, “The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.” By appreciating the rhapsody of her surroundings through the use of the metaphor of music and dance, it is readily apparent that Westover is an author to whom words, settings, scenes are important. This characteristic of elegant prose is just on of the book’s assets that propel the reader to find the book too intense to put down.
As in any story, fact or fiction, the development of the characters is most important. The most compelling character in Westover’s book is that of her father, Gene. Most likely a paranoid schizophrenic, Gene Westover was a hard man, impermeable in his views, his fear of the government, and his iron fisted approach to raising children and controlling the household, including his wife, Faye.
Gene frequently ranted about the coming of the “Days of Abomination.” He insisted that his family would be prepared for the impending cataclysm. He stockpiled “more than a dozen military-surplus rifles, mostly SKSs, their thin silver bayonets folded neatly under their barrels.” He had the family stay up for nights preparing “head for the hills bags,” filled with herbal medicines, water purifiers, flint, and steel, as well as Ready-to-Eat-Meals.
No matter how seriously a member of the family was injured in vehicular accidents, work related disasters with heavy machinery, or even nearly being incinerated to death, Gene insisted that if a member of the family went to the hospital, that was opening the family up to the government knowing their business. The family was constantly being put at risk by Gene’s crazy view of the world.
Westover’s mother, Faye, became a renowned midwife in the area, as well as a skilled herbalist, who did actually bring her children and husband through their scariest injuries and illnesses. Although Faye usually obeyed Gene’s severe dictates, she secretly encouraged her children to escape, which some of them, were able to do.
The cruelest thing that happened in the Westover family was the physical abuse that Shane, one of the older brothers wrought on his siblings. Although the parents knew that Shawn was beating and intimidating the other children, they did nothing to stop him. Despite his sadistic tendencies toward women, especially, there were some tender, playful moments when Westover enjoyed being with her brother. The two of them enjoyed a long road trip together in which they seemed to bond and have fun. However, Shawn’s dark side was even more evil than his father’s and erupted frequently frightening those in his way.
For Westover there could be only one route to escape, and that was preparing herself to get a real education, other than her mother’s lame attempts to teach the children to read. The actions that she takes to move into an outside world that are far beyond her understanding of her own narrow world, are astounding.
Although when reading the memoir, the details of the Westover’s existence seem like something from the 19th century, Tara Westover was born in 1986, and is now only 33 years old. Her achievements, including the writing of this book, are jaw dropping when learning about her life. The reader can’t help but feel that her story must have been exaggerated in some of its details. However, maybe not.
I had just finished reading Educated on vacation in Hawaii. As I sat on my lounge chair at the pool, I observed two little girls playing. One was as slender and nimble as a guppie in the water; the other was chubby and content to bounce up and down in the water other than swim. The man who was watching them in the water struck up a conversation with me, and quickly told me that the slimmer child was his daughter; the other girl just a friend whom he and his wife had brought along from Oahu to the big island of Hawaii to keep his daughter company.
Her name was Easter, and she had never been off of the island of Oahu in her seven years. Her mother, who was on welfare, was homeschooling Easter, and would allow her to stay up until very late at night because there was no reason for her to arise early.
“She’s so fat because her mother feeds her on junk food, and she eats pizza at midnight. She’s slow, too, and I told her mother that girl needs to be in school.”
My mothering instincts kicked in. I wanted to scoop the little girl out of the pool and bring her home with me. Here, just an hour after finishing Westover’s book, was a child just a few feet from me, who was living a life similar to hers; socially isolated from peers, not getting the education she desperately needs, and her physical needs not being met. Although Easter’s experience may not have been as dire as Tara Westover’s, Education is a great book to make one open his/her eyes to see that there are children lost, even today, from parental neglect or incompetence, fear or insanity.
Education is a powerful book that will open conversations in book groups and among people who care about children. It is truly one of the must reads of this year. It stands, not only as a triumphant biography, but as a piece of literature as well,.