Originally published: February 2018
Author: Tara Westover
Published by: Hutchinson
Length: 385 pages
Reading dates: 21-25 May 2020
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.”
Educated by Tara Westover was our book club choice for May. We try and read a wide variety of books and it had been a while since we had read a non-fiction book and all of us were quite keen to read this one. I actually already owned a hardback copy of Educated – I was lucky enough to attend a Lush book club back in May 2018 where Tara Westover signed my copy of the hardback, which has sat on my shelves waiting to be read ever since. So I was pretty happy it was chosen as our book club read!
Tara Westover grew up in a family of survivalists, preparing for the End of Days, in Idaho. She spent her summers bottling peaches and her winters rotating emergency supplies, hoping that when the World of Men failed, her family would continue on, unaffected.
She hadn’t been registered for a birth certificate. She had no school records because she’d never set foot in a classroom, and no medical records because her father didn’t believe in doctors or hospitals. According to the state and federal government, she didn’t exist.
As she grew older, her father became more radical, and her brother, more violent. At sixteen Tara decided to educate herself. Her struggle for knowledge would take her far from her Idaho mountains, over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d travelled too far. If there was still a way home.
Tara grew up in a devout Mormon family, the youngest of 7 children. Her father owned a junk yard and did other construction jobs. He believed the end of the world was imminent so had supplies of fuel and food in an underground bunker for his family. Her mother sort of fell into becoming a midwife (not medically trained) and specialised in tinctures and salves made from herbs. The family thought doctors were an abomination from God and throughout the book, there are a series of horrific injuries due to car crashes and industrial accidents and the family are treated just using the mother’s potions. Even when her father is terribly burned in a fuel fire, he somehow survives, ending up horribly disfigured.
Westover tells her story in a non-judgemental way. She speaks of her upbringing almost with a fondness as it was all she had known. Three of the children were completely invisible to the authorities and they were “home schooled” although in reality, this wasn’t structured in any way and they were essentially left to teach themselves.
Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done.
Tara’s life was tough – she is put to work in the family junk yard at a very young age but accepts this as how it has to be. One of her brothers Shawn is abusive and dangerous and on more than one occasion, puts Tara in fear of her life. After rescuing her from one of Shawn’s attacks one day, another brother, Tyler suggests she earns some qualifications to give her options. With a lot of study, Tara manages to pass the standardized test which enables her to attend Brigham Young University which has a predominantly Mormon intake. I was surprised how easy it was for her to persuade her parents an education would be a good idea. Despite BYU being a Mormon college, Tara was by far the most devout student and felt shocked by how other students dressed and their behaviour.
Life at college was a struggle but I loved how people believed in her. She found supportive friends and professors and ended up studying in Harvard then Cambridge, eventually earning a PhD and becoming a Doctor at the age of 27 – a remarkable achievement.
This was a fascinating look at a life very different to any others I have known. Westover is a talented writer – her descriptions of the mountains where she lived are just stunning. The tales of abuse are horrific and difficult to read but I was routing for Tara and even though I knew she survived the abuse from her brother I still read it with a sense of foreboding. The hardest thing for me was to read about her mother. To begin with she is supportive and encouraging of Tara but doesn’t stand up for Tara when Shawn is hurting her. In fact, she ends up accusing Tara of lying and saying it never happened and I can’t forgive her for that. She is heavily influence by her husband and despite being the families main breadwinner, having a successful business selling essential oils, she is subservient to him. Tara on several occasions, tries to reach out to her mother but her mother won’t see her unless she sees her father too. Westover is now estranged from her parents and some of her siblings but she still loves them and I think she would deep down want to be reunited with at least her mother one day.
Everyone is book club marked this very highly and we had a long discussion. There have been some doubts about whether Tara could in fact of self taught herself to be able to take college entrance exams but overall everyone agreed the writing was stunning and the story was shocking. A great book club choice.
About the author:
Tara Westover is an American author living in the UK. Born in Idaho to a father opposed to public education, she never attended school. She spent her days working in her father’s junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. She was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom, and after that first taste, she pursued learning for the next decade. She received a BA from Brigham Young University in 2008 and was subsequently awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014.