The BookBrowse Review

Published December 5, 2018

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Educated
Educated
A Memoir
by Tara Westover

Hardcover (20 Feb 2018), 352 pages.
Publisher: Random House
ISBN-13: 9780399590504
BookBrowse:
Critics:
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Winner of the 2018 BookBrowse Nonfiction Award

An unforgettable memoir about a young girl who, kept out of school, leaves her survivalist family and goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University.


Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her "head-for-the-hills" bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged metal in her father's junkyard.

Her father distrusted the medical establishment, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education, and no one to intervene when an older brother became violent.

When another brother got himself into college and came back with news of the world beyond the mountain, Tara decided to try a new kind of life. She taught herself enough mathematics, grammar, and science to take the ACT and was admitted to Brigham Young University. There, she studied psychology, politics, philosophy, and history, learning for the first time about pivotal world events like the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge University. Only then would she wonder if she'd traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes from severing ties with those closest to you. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one's life through new eyes, and the will to change it.

Chapter 1
Choose the Good

My strongest memory is not a memory. It's something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened. The memory was formed when I was five, just before I turned six, from a story my father told in such detail that I and my brothers and sister had each conjured our own cinematic version, with gunfire and shouts. Mine had crickets. That's the sound I hear as my family huddles in the kitchen, lights off, hiding from the Feds who've surrounded the house. A woman reaches for a glass of water and her silhouette is lighted by the moon. A shot echoes like the lash of a whip and she falls. In my memory it's always Mother who falls, and she has a baby in her arms. The baby doesn't make sense - I'm the youngest of my mother's seven children - but like I said, none of this happened.

A year after my father told us that story, we gathered one evening to hear him read aloud from Isaiah, a prophecy about Immanuel. He sat on our mustard-colored sofa, a large Bible open in his lap. Mother was next to him. The rest of us were strewn across the shaggy brown carpet.

"Butter and honey shall he eat," Dad droned, low and monotone, weary from a long day hauling scrap. "That he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good."

There was a heavy pause. We sat quietly.

My father was not a tall man but he was able to command a room. He had a presence about him, the solemnity of an oracle. His hands were thick and leathery - the hands of a man who'd been hard at work all his life - and they grasped the Bible firmly.

He read the passage aloud a second time, then a third, then a fourth. With each repetition the pitch of his voice climbed higher. His eyes, which moments before had been swollen with fatigue, were now wide and alert. There was a divine doctrine here, he said. He would inquire of the Lord.

The next morning Dad purged our fridge of milk, yogurt and cheese, and that evening when he came home, his truck was loaded with fifty gallons of honey.

"Isaiah doesn't say which is evil, butter or honey," Dad said, grinning as my brothers lugged the white tubs to the basement. "But if you ask, the Lord will tell you!"

When Dad read the verse to his mother, she laughed in his face. "I got some pennies in my purse," she said. "You better take them. They'll be all the sense you got."

Grandma had a thin, angular face and an endless store of faux Indian jewelry, all silver and turquoise, which hung in clumps from her spindly neck and fingers. Because she lived down the hill from us, near the highway, we called her Grandma-down-the-hill. This was to distinguish her from our mother's mother, who we called Grandma-over-in-town because she lived fifteen miles south, in the only town in the county, which had a single stoplight and a grocery store.

Dad and his mother got along like two cats with their tails tied together. They could talk for a week and not agree about anything, but they were tethered by their devotion to the mountain. My father's family had been living at the base of Buck Peak for a century. Grandma's daughters had married and moved away, but my father stayed, building a shabby yellow house, which he would never quite finish, just up the hill from his mother's, at the base of the mountain, and plunking a junkyard - one of several - next to her manicured lawn.

They argued daily, about the mess from the junkyard but more often about us kids. Grandma thought we should be in school and not, as she put it, "roaming the mountain like savages." Dad said public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God. "I may as well surrender my kids to the devil himself," he said, "as send them down the road to that school."

God told Dad to share the revelation with the people who lived and farmed in the shadow of Buck Peak. On Sundays, nearly everyone gathered at the church, a hickory-colored chapel just off the highway with the small, restrained steeple common to Mormon churches. Dad cornered fathers as they left their pews. He started with his cousin Jim, who listened good-naturedly while Dad waved his Bible and explained the sinfulness of milk. Jim grinned, then clapped Dad on the shoulder and said no righteous God would deprive a man of homemade strawberry ice cream on a hot summer afternoon. Jim's wife tugged on his arm. As he slid past us I caught a whiff of manure. Then I remembered: the big dairy farm a mile north of Buck Peak, that was Jim's.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Educated by Tara Westover. Copyright © 2018 by Tara Westover. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Many of Tara's father's choices have an obvious impact on Tara's life, but how did her mother's choices influence her? How did that change over time?
  2. Tara's brother Tyler tells her to take the ACT. What motivates Tara to follow his advice?
  3. Charles was Tara's first window into the outside world. Under his influence, Tara begins to dress differently and takes medicine for the first time. Discuss Tara's conflicting admiration for both Charles and her father.
  4. Tara has titled her book Educated and much of her education takes place in classrooms, lectures, or other university environments. But not all. What other important moments of "education" were there? What friends, acquaintances, or experiences had the most impact on Tara? What does that imply about what an education is?
  5. Eventually, Tara confronts her family about her brother's abuse. How do different the members of her family respond?
  6. What keeps Tara coming back to her family as an adult?
  7. Ultimately, what type of freedom did education give Tara?
  8. Tara wrote this at the age of thirty, while in the midst of her healing process. Why do you think she chose to write it so young, and how does this distinguish the book from similar memoirs?
  9. Tara paid a high price for her education: she lost her family. Do you think she would make the same choice again?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Random House. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

This unforgettable memoir tells of a young woman's off-grid upbringing in Idaho and the hard work that took her from almost complete ignorance to a Cambridge PhD.

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Voted 2018 Best Nonfiction Award Winner by BookBrowse Subscribers

Tara Westover had the kind of upbringing most of us can only imagine. She was the youngest of seven children raised in Buck Peak, Idaho by Mormon parents who distrusted the federal government and anticipated the end of days. Her father refused to register his children's births, so Westover had no birth certificate or knowledge of her exact birthday. Westover's dad also rejected formal education, so none of his children attended school. They could study at home from a meager selection of textbooks if they chose, but their father valued practical skills more. He put Westover to work in his junkyard, sorting scrap metal when she was merely 10. She also babysat, packed nuts, and worked in a grocery store. But she never went to school.

Few of the simple pleasures of childhood were available. Musical theater provided rare moments of joy in a life of hard labor that included assisting her mother, who was an unofficial midwife and herbalist (see 'Beyond the Book'). The family went through two serious car accidents and her brother Shawn suffered multiple head injuries at his father's construction site. Shawn's behavior grew cruel, especially after his brain damage. He would put Westover's head down the toilet, bend her wrist back until it nearly snapped, and call her a "whore" for wearing lip gloss. This sadistic pattern was repeated with another sister and later, with his wife, yet Westover struggled to convince her parents to believe her and do something, anything, about Shawn's manipulative violence.

Education was Westover's means of escape. Like her brother Tyler before her, she studied independently until she passed the ACT and earned acceptance to Brigham Young University. Here she was forced to wake up to her extreme ignorance. She raised a hand in history class to ask what "the Holocaust" meant, and learned who Martin Luther King, Jr. was. A study abroad year at King's College, Cambridge, opened her mind even more and paved the way for her return to England for Master's and PhD degrees in history. One professor told her she'd written one of the best essays he'd read in 30 years, and referred to her as his "Pygmalion" – a fresh mind that he could mold for success.

From an Idaho junkyard to the venerable halls of Cambridge—it was disorienting for Westover to think of how far she had come and truly believe she deserved to be there. Trips home plunged her back into family turmoil. Her parents disapproved of her pursuing education instead of marriage and motherhood, and her father was severely burned in a fuel tank explosion. He didn't believe in modern medicine, so never went to a hospital; his wife treated him at home with her herbal salves, a booming business that made them wealthy.

Westover's incredible story is about testing the limits of perseverance and sanity. Her father may have been a survivalist, but her psychic survival is the most impressive outcome here. Although this memoir represents Westover's own perspective, she strives to be rational and charitable by questioning her own memory and interpretation of events, often looking for outside confirmation from other family members who witnessed the same events. And though the temptation must have been strong, she doesn't portray her father as a villain; he's more like an Old Testament patriarch, fierce and unmovable. She is careful not to make hers a simple narrative about rejecting Mormonism – in fact, she opens with a disclaimer to that effect – because her parents' extremism was far beyond what is the norm for Mormons.

The writing takes this astonishing life story to the next level, making it a classic to sit alongside memoirs by Alexandra Fuller, Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls. Westover narrates with calm authority, channeling the style of the scriptures and history books that were formative in her upbringing and education. One of my favorite passages reflects on the fundamental differences between her father's viewpoint and her own: "My father and I looked at the temple. He saw God; I saw granite. We looked at each other. He saw a woman damned; I saw an unhinged old man, literally disfigured by his beliefs."

This is one of the most powerful and well-written memoirs I've ever read. In its first half a young girl spends lonely years in the wide-open sanctuary of the American West: "Her classroom was a heap of junk. Her textbooks, slates of scrap," Westover writes. In the second half the whole world and its history open up to her, but at a high price: "having sacrificed my family to my education." The author remains estranged from her parents, and the siblings have formed two factions: four work for her parents' herbal empire in Idaho; three left to pursue education, all obtaining doctoral degrees. Which route would you choose?

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Kirkus Reviews
An astonishing account of deprivation, confusion, survival, and success.

Library Journal
Explicit descriptions of abuse can make for difficult reading, but for a student who started from a point of near illiteracy, Westover's writing is lyrical and literary in style. With no real comparison memoir, this joins the small number of Mormon exposés of recent years.

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Westover's vivid prose makes this saga of the pressures of conformity and self-assertion that warp a family seem both terrifying and ordinary.

Author Blurb Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire
Tara's story will find a place alongside modern classic memoirs like Wild and The Glass Castle. It's that special

Author Blurb J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy
Educated shines a light on a part of our country that we too often overlook.

Author Blurb Amy Chua, Yale law professor and author of Political Tribes and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Breathtaking, heart-wrenching, inspirational - I've never read anything like this.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Anl
Great read - easy to read
Loved this book. As I live close by and am familiar with the culture, I do not dispute any of it. I would love to know the author’s opinion as to why some are educated and some are not.

As a grown child of an abusive parent I applaud your decision for no contact. It was the best thing I ever did for me. And those around me.

I have read books that are quite similar - one in Alaska abusive parents, mother supported him, etc. “religious.”

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by JUNE M SHOJI
Importance of a Proper Education
Tara persevered from a home life which did not believe in the main stream of society. Home schooled with ideals that modern day medicine and teachings would corrupt her soul. The changes in her from the education she received at the university level brings to mind the terrible impact today's poor education standards are having on our children in today's society. Great book and should be made into a movie.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Krm
Great, insightful book on current day events
Can relate to some of her struggles. Was very well written and I hope she makes a sequel to this book...how she sees her life after marriage and children.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by michael haughton
Educated A memoir by Tara Westover
At first it might seem abit difficult to read. Impossible to put down. A powerful, powerful book that you shouldn’t miss. I can’t just leave it at that because Tara Westover’s story deserves more than those few words. I don’t often read memoirs, but when I do I want them to be told by extraordinary people who have a meaningful story to tell and that would be faint praise for this book. It sounds odd to say how beautifully written this is because we are not spared of the ugly details of what this family was about, but yet it is beautifully written. I had to remind myself at times that I wasn’t reading a gritty novel, that Tara and her family were real as I got more than just a glimpse of a life that was hard for me to even imagine.

A religious fanatic father, hoarding food and guns and bullets and keeping his family off the radar, not filing for birth certificates, not getting medical attention when they needed it, avoiding the government, the feds at all cost , keeping his children out of school, the paranoia, the preparation for the “Days of Abomination” - this is what we find in this place on a mountain in Idaho. There are horrible accidents and he won’t get medical help for his family. Her mother’s healing herbs and tinctures are used to treat the slightest scrape to the most horrible head injury or burns from gasoline to an explosion. If some thing bad happens it because that’s the will of the Lord. Her mother seems at times more sympathetic to her children, but she is complicit by her subservience to her husband. I don’t even know how to describe it other than gut wrenching to see the effects on this family of neglect in the name of religious beliefs and in reality mental illness. It isn’t just her father but the brutality by one of her brother’s which is more than awful and creates rifts between family members,

That she was bold enough and somehow found the will to rise above it all while she is torn with the sense of duty, of loyalty to her family, the ingrained beliefs, still loving her family is miraculous. Going to college was the first time she’d been in a classroom, not knowing what the Holocaust was, learning about slavery, the depression, WWII, the civil rights movement. She doesn’t just get a college education but ultimately a PhD from Cambridge, a Harvard fellowship. She struggles for years to discover who she was, who she could be - a scholar, a writer, an independent woman. This is a stunning, awe inspiring story that will haunt the reader long after the book ends.

Thank you to Tara Westover for sharing yourself with us. It was well worth the reading late nights.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by lani
Family pathology and hope for the future
What an accomplished novel: superb execution, raw unflinching dialogue, impressive character descriptions,and unrelenting tension. I am not sure there is going to be a better memoir in all of 2018. In Westover's searing novel, and I can't use hyperbole enough, she discusses her Mormon survivalist's family who refuse to vaccinate their 7 children, send them to public schools, or participate in anything that looks like an arm of the government. The children all have to help on the farm working with heavy machinery, scrapping for parts and enduring pain from accidents- the latter being the Lord's will. Early in Tara's life, her mother becomes a midwife and then develops oils and herb infusions to treat mishaps, as doctors and hospitals were mostly verboten. As the children were rarely exposed to others their age, they had no other frame of reference to know that their way of life was not the norm. Violence between one of the brothers and the author was downright scary, more so as the parents defended his actions and looked the other way. The story continues to unfold as Mary begins to find a sense of self, learning to read and write, going on to college and even securing a prestigious Gates scholarship. When one views the trajectory of her insular life to her final accomplishments, one can only shake his/her head in disbelief. From beginning to end this is a riveting, unwavering look at the power of family to define identity, and to explore the determinants of breaking free from deleterious bonds.Settle in and be prepared to be swept off your feet with this austere desolate novel that will scorch and penetrate your soul...and don't forget concurrently to be amazed!

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Herbalism

Educated author Tara Westover's Idaho family runs Butterfly Express, a successful business selling essential oils and other herbal remedies. Her mother, LaRee Westover, trains herbalists and is the author of a book on herbalism, Butterfly Miracles with Essential Oils. Throughout her childhood, Westover was treated with foraged herbs instead of pharmaceuticals. "For as long as I could remember, whenever I was in pain, whether from a cut or a toothache, Mother would make a tincture of lobelia and skullcap," she writes. "It had never lessened the pain, not one degree. Because of this, I had come to respect pain, even revere it, as necessary and untouchable." It wasn't until she was in college that she tried painkiller pills for the first time.

Herbalism, the ancient practice of using plants for medicinal purposes, also has spiritual associations. Archaeological evidence suggests that herbal medicine was practiced as early as 60,000 years ago by Neanderthals. Today it is considered one branch of alternative or complementary medicine. It is still widely practiced in Asia and Africa, and occupies a niche in Western markets. In some cases the treatments also involve minerals and animal products, as in traditional Chinese medicine or Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Although many pharmaceuticals are derived from chemicals found in the natural environment (such as plants and fungi), they have to undergo stringent clinical testing, whereas herbal remedies usually have traditional worth but no objectively proven efficacy. They can be administered as herbal teas, topical salves, tinctures, or via aromatherapy.

The medical profession's suspicion of herbalism is well founded: there is uncertainty about the treatments' dosage and purity, and various herbs and drugs can have dangerous interactions. To try to uphold minimal standards of treatment, some countries offer formal training for herbalists. In the UK, the National Institute of Medical Herbalists certifies graduates of seven university courses in herbal medicine. It requires members to have a minimum of 500 hours of supervised clinical training, and guarantees that a code of ethics is maintained and any complaints are dealt with efficiently. The School of Herbal Medicine in Somerset runs a six-year program of on-the-job education that leads to a professional qualification.

In the USA, herbal remedies are considered dietary supplements, which are monitored by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure adherence to good manufacturing practices. As long as companies do not make specific medical claims for their products, they do not have to provide any proof of efficacy or safety. However, if a product is found to have damaging effects, the FDA can pull it from the market. In Canada, guidelines for herbal remedies are issued by the Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate.

Herbalism may not command the same respect as medical science in some quarters, but it has been a part of human history for thousands of years and is practiced around the world. It cannot be ignored.

Picture of street vendor selling herbal remedies in Patzcuaro, Michoacan by Thelma Datter

By Rebecca Foster

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