This is a book that lived up to its hype. Educated has graced numerous bestseller lists, was a finalist for several awards, and made the rounds through endless book clubs and it’s easy to see why. Tara Westover’s memoir about her childhood as a Mormon survivalist would probably be gripping enough as its own story. But the second chapter of her life, in which the self-educated author attends both Cambridge and Harvard, is equally astounding.
Tara Westover grew up on Buck’s Peak in rural Idaho. She is the youngest of the seven children of a devout Mormon couple with an extreme suspicion of the U.S. Government. That suspicion is so extreme that the Westovers pulled their kids out of school and subjected their children to homeschooling that was so inadequate that when Tara finally escapes the homestead to attend BYU, she has an embarrassing moment in class because she hasn’t heard of the Holocaust. The family becomes preppers, stockpiling food, fuel and guns. The kids run wild on the mountain.
The parents’ paranoia also extends to modern healthcare. They refuse hospital care for even major brain injuries and extensive third degree burns. Tara’s mother becomes a midwife, delivering babies for like minded people. Then she expands into herbal remedies and essential oils. In one of the book’s many unforeseen twists she turns this into a multimillion dollar business.
Tara’s childhood is spent roaming the mountain and working for her father’s junk business. Her father is a dominant character in this book. He steadily becomes more paranoid and uses his faith, in a twisted way, to pass judgment on everyone, including his family. He cows his wife, who is a conflicted combination of successful business woman and overly obedient wife. He also wreaks havoc on the dynamics between the kids. He reminded me of a much more nuanced version of the father in Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. However, that character was predictable. Tara’s father is not. Sometimes when you expected him to condemn something, he instead reacts with affection or pride in his child. It kept me off balance and I can’t imagine what it did to his family members. When Tara goes to college, she learns about bipolar disorder and theorizes that’s what her father has.
Another dominant and troubled character is her brother, Shawn, who alternates between gentle, fun loving brother and vile abuser. He terrorizes Tara and causes the ultimate estrangement between Tara and her family.
Given this background, it’s amazing that Tara has accomplished so much. She taught herself math so that she could pass the ACT. Then, at sixteen, she went off to BYU, the first time she had ever been in a classroom. She excelled so much at BYU that she earned a scholarship to Cambridge and then earned a PhD from Harvard.
But even in the midst of academic success, her family and Buck’s Peak are always on her mind. She visits home periodically, hoping things will be better, giving her parents and Shawn a second, third, fourth chance. She had an admirable, but ultimately foolhardy, loyalty to her family. Her family situation eventually sends her into a funk that almost jeopardizes her Harvard career. But she ultimately prevails. “Educated” doesn’t just refer to formal learning. It also refers to what she learns about herself and family loyalty.
Tara Westover is a remarkable woman. She has an unusual combination of natural intelligence, curiosity, persistence and a tremendous work ethic. That is what it took to break out of her situation. Read her story. It’s inspirational.
Have you read Educated? Tell me what you thought.