BOOK REVIEW: Educated by Tara Westover

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Tara Westover was 17 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 in her father's junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, 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 one of Tara's older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important 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. 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 with severing the closest of ties. 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.

My Thoughts:

Educated is a powerful memoir about growing up in a religious Mormon family in the mountains of Idaho. Tara Westover’s father was a paranoid survivalist who buried guns and food in preparation for the end of the world. Her mother made home remedies from herbs, and used them to try and cure catastrophic injuries and illnesses in her family. Tara never went to school, or to a doctor, and her birth was not registered. She grew up believing her father was the Lord’s instrument on earth – her gradual disillusionment is heart-breaking to witness.

The early chapters of the book are both the most poetic and the most powerful. Tara Westover’s love for her mountain home shines through every line she writes about it. Slowly her childlike faith in her father and family is eroded. Scenes of violence and emotional abuse are hard to read (or, in my case, listen to as I had bought the audio book).

Eventually Tara begins to educate herself. She borrows books from the library and studies hard enough to be admitted to university. But unsurprisingly she finds it hard to adapt. Her long life of indoctrination is difficult to cast off. The tension between the world she is only just discovering and the skewed beliefs of her family almost break her. Only the kindness of friends and the loyalty of one of her brothers sustain her, as she slowly finds a place in the world for herself.

Memoir is always a slippery thing. The writer carefully selects what to reveal and what to hide, and the reader is privy only to their interpretation of events. In that way, memoir is as close to fiction as it is to non-fiction. This does not trouble me at all; I note it only because there are times when Tara’s voice becomes quite cool and detached, and it is clear she is struggling to find the way to express her sense of hurt and betrayal. I’d have liked a little more depth of emotion, to help me understand just how difficult it was for her to cut herself off from home and family, and I’d have liked a stronger celebration of those who helped her along the way, to give me a better sense of how she managed to survive. But these are minor quibbles. In all, a very poignant and sobering life story.

You might also like to read my review of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls:

BOOK REVIEW: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls


Kate Forsyth
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