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September 12, 2018

Review of Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover

by Alison DeLuca

Educated: A Memoir is on the summer reading list put out by the 44th president. It's a fascinating entry since the author grew up in a survivalist family that was deeply suspicious of the government. Tara Westover's book is the story of what it was like to grow up as a home-schooled Mormon, a girl taught that women had to submit to men, and, that around every corner, the Feds waited to take her rights away.
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book cover of Educated, A Memoir by Tara Westover

Westover's father refused to get birth certificates for his children. He never filed with the IRS. None of his children went to school. None of them visited a doctor.

To survive on the mountain known as Buck's Peak, Tara's father ran a scrap business. It was a perilous job that nearly killed him and his children over the years. For medicine, the kids relied on their mother's home-brewed essential oils and herbs. Self-trained as a midwife, their mother was the closest thing they knew to a doctor.

None of the Westovers knew about the Holocaust. They were never taught about art, music, or literature.

This background sucked me in - a look at an alien world I've heard about but never experienced. Westover lets readers inside her environment, and what a wild place it is.

Perhaps the wildest character is Shawn, her vicious and complicated elder brother. She describes his emotional torture of his girlfriends and, as she grew older, the author herself. As Tara begins to mature, Shawn's torture becomes physical.

She describes this in unsparing prose. Throughout her memoir, the family's constant confrontation with near-death and horrifying pain is presented quietly, her matter-of-fact tone making the events vivid in black and red: the colors of burnt skin and blood.

As the book progresses, one of Westover's brothers does the unthinkable. Tyler insists on getting his birth certificate and going to college. He studies on his own to make up for years out of school and makes his way off the mountain where the family lives.

Later, Tara follows him in this search to be Educated.

If this quest is difficult for Tyler, it's nearly impossible for Tara. She's a woman, supposed to marry and have children. In her world, a midwife mother is the height of what females accomplish.

Both her father and Shawn, the abusive brother, are enraged. The description of how Shawn continues to torture her is nearly unreadable, especially the section when he uses the N-word. He calls her by this name all summer.

picture of Idaho mountains
image courtesy of wiki commons

The saddest part about that is Tara now understand what that word implies. She grew up thinking it was okay to use it, only realizing the violent history implied in one epithet when she goes to college.

However, both her father and Shawn have layers of humanity in them that contrast with their violent personalities. When she can't understand calculus, Tara's father works on her equation with his own cosmic version of math, using wild symbols and crazy equations to solve the problem.

He gets the answer right.

Shawn also calls her 'Siddle Lister' and tells her she's the best of the family. But his moments of rough affection occur between swirlies, wrestling matches, and a broken wrist.

The second part of Educated is about her own escape to Cambridge and how she is sucked back into Shawn's escalating and inhuman violence. It makes for compelling reading, but the climax is so harrowing I nearly walked away.

This book reminds me of The Glass Castle, except it's on the other end of the spectrum. Instead of free-wheeling artists taking their children on a gypsy adventure through life, the Westovers are convinced the End of Days is nigh. Only their farm is safe. They believe in God, guns, and gas.

I was unable to put this book down, often reading late into the night. If you enjoy books that offer a different vision of life, a way of seeing into a survivalist mentality, you can't do better than Educated.

And please leave your thoughts on Westover's book below. I'd love to hear from you!

Buy Educated: a Memoir at Amazon

Alison DeLuca is the author of several steampunk and urban fantasy books.  She was born in Arizona and has also lived in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain.
Currently, she wrestles words and laundry in New Jersey.

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  1. I've been seeing this book everywhere. I'm not normally a nonfiction reader, but I think I might have to make an exception for this one.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction