By: Tara Westover
Published: Feb. 20, 2018
From the Cover:
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 one’s closest 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.
In 2016, I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. In many ways, I found similarities between Westover’s Educated and Vance’s Elegy. On the surface, both are stories about how these individuals overcame staggering amounts of adversity to lead successful and enlightened lives. I’m not going to sit here and compare the two, although I will say that if you read Elegy and you enjoyed it, then you will undoubtedly enjoy Educated as well.
Westover grew up in rural Idaho in a large family who practices what some might call “extreme” Mormonism. Her father stockpiled machine guns, ammunition, food, and oil in preparation for “End of Days” in which the world will be consumed with war and natural disasters prior to the Second Coming of Christ. He does not allow his children, including Tara, to go to public school, go to the hospital, or even get birth certificates as he believes that anything associated with the government is corrupt and that the government will be after them if it knows his family exists.
When I first started reading Educated, I have to admit that it was very slow-going. There was a lot of context that needed to be given, especially to an audience that may have little to no knowledge of Mormonism. However, the story picked up quickly and I felt drawn to her incredible writing style (a detail whose significance was not lost on me). I yearned to know what crazy thing would happen next and how she was going to get from Point A to Point B.
One cannot ignore the extraordinary metamorphosis Westover undergoes. As a young woman from an ultra-conservative religious sect with little education, little family support, and a sufferer of physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is truly incredible that she was able to accomplish the things she did. Go to college. Study abroad at Cambridge. Graduate from college. Study at Cambridge for a masters degree with the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Study as a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Return to Cambridge to earn her PhD. All of this from a woman who self studied for the ACT and did not know what the Holocaust was until she got to college.
Educated reminds us that nothing is truly impossible. Education, supportive families, and access to opportunities are gifts that are all too often under appreciated. I feel extremely blessed to live the life I live, and I will carry Westover’s story with me forever.
Rating This is my first 5-star review! That’s not something I hand out lightly, either. I differentiate a 5-star from a 4.5-star book solely based on feeling. There really is not that much difference between the two when you compare things like plot, organization of ideas, character development, and syntax. That extra half of a star comes from a feeling or connection that cannot be put into words. I felt that with Educated. I can’t explain it; you’ll just have to experience it yourself.