What does it mean to be smart? To be educated? The right to learn is not one we think about often in this country, as public education systems are provided for free to all children. But to a young girl whose parents preferred to educate their family members by having them work at their junkyard/farm in Idaho, more than just the history lessons passed on by her parents come into question as she grows up.
Tara Westover tells a riveting tale of her upbringing as the youngest of seven children in a fundamentalist family. She has no birth certificate, in fact, her actual birth date becomes a subject of controversy as her mother, grandmother and aunt all swear she was born on different days. But she works hard, and struggles to balance her intuitive knowledge with what she learns in books, after eventually fighting with her family and forcing her way into school.
The starkness of her life on the “mountain” where her family lives contrasts vividly with the town where she travels to perform in plays, much to her father’s chagrin. One by one her older siblings begin to leave the homestead, wanting more to life than being their harsh father’s crew leader on construction or salvage jobs. Tara’s mother first finds paying work as a midwife, and then transforms into a business owner, selling essential oil mixtures and other healing concoctions made from herbs. Despite the horrific accidents that plague the Westover family, they do not seek treatment from the Medical Establishment. Although all people in town ascribe to the Mormon faith, Tara’s father says that hardly any of them are true believers. In fact he criticizes members of his own church’s congregation for being Gentiles for such sins as consuming Diet Coke, doing work on the Sabbath, or wearing a skirt with too high a hemline.
As Tara ages, she struggles to find the hero and the villain in her own story. She wants to learn, and spends time huddling with an old science textbook, trying to learn basic principles in order to take the ACT. Whenever she wants to carve out time for studying, her father tells her she can do it when she’s finished with her duties. While some of her older siblings encourage her, others want her to fall in line and help to flesh out their father’s work crew. Her mother passes back and forth between supporting Tara’s dreams and demurring to their father’s violent, unhinged views.
It takes a heartbreakingly long time for Tara to embrace herself in this memoir, to finally instill within her heart a sense of self love and self respect. She has to replace her father’s and her brother’s harsh words about female values with the ones she has learned from books and in some of the most sacred founts of knowledge in the world. She finally begins to believe in her own innate value and goodness after returning over and over again to a homeland that is no longer her home, to a place that is not safe. Along the way we see Tara struggle with fitting in to society because she does not feel at home in herself. When her lack of knowledge proves her to be an unusual creature in a college environment, she retreats into herself repeatedly until she begins to own her life, to rewrite her story, and to start fresh on a new page.
My heart ached reading this book, and I did recoil at the violence of her brother and father’s outbursts. It is so difficult to picture them inflicting such rage on a young girl, and I tried not to do so. It also became more surreal with each chapter to see how her brother unraveled, and how the family chose sides by the end. Tara’s strength cannot be overstated, and her story is one that can teach all of us about making hard choices.
While the family is Mormon, there is not a lot of Mormon-trashing in the book. She just happens to have been raised Mormon, and none of the marriages in the memoir are polyamorous. I will admit I was fascinated by the pseudonyms (some family members have their real names used while others do not) and the sections where Tara admits her memory of events may be different then others in the family or in town.
If you’re interested in a non-flinching account of a girl fighting to become her own person and stand her own ground under very unusual circumstances, give this book a try. I enjoyed it even more than Hillbilly Elegy, and they are very much in the same realm.