Reviewed by Marilyn Herbert
When Educated by Tara Westover was first published, it ignited a national conversation because Educated is a memoir about how a girl who grew up in Idaho got “an education” (329). The youngest of 5 boys and 2 girls, with a mother and a father, one set of grandparents living over-in-town and the other, down-the-hill, Westover tells her passable-as-fiction story in the only way she knows how, by studying her own chaotic history through her personal experience and observations of the varied personalities of her family members.
Obviously, one of Educated’s major themes is education, but it’s Westover’s journey that personifies the theme and illustrates its nuances: education doesn’t change a person, it allows for shifts in outlook and perception.
Because she had no actual school education until she was 16, it wasn’t until a lecture at Brigham Young University, when Westover first learned about the American Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 through ‘Whipped Peter’. Upon later learning about the Civil Rights Movement of 1963 through photographs of Rosa Parks being fingerprinted, Emmett Till smiling on Christmas Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. addressing the crowds at the March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, with his “I Have A Dream” speech, she realized her naive assumption that “surely the call of justice had been heard by all, and the issue had been resolved” (178). These shocking gaps of social insights, became the gaps between Westover’s educated self and her 16 year-old self. Back at home one summer when her brother, testingreactive nicknames for Westover, renewed the use of the N-word in his repertoire. Here, Westover bravely reflects on one of her most profound shifts where she had finally “discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either willfully or accidentally ignorant.” (p180).
In another earth shattering moment that Westover bravely depicts, she raises her hand to ask a question, “I don’t know this word, what does it mean?” (157). Now remember that this was both the first question that she had ever asked in a formal education setting, and the first of a teacher, let alone a university professor and as if that wasn’t daunting enough, the word in question was big: The Holocaust. In her memories, Westover had likened the Holocaust to “the Boston Massacre, which Dad talked about alot, in which half a dozen people had been martyred by a tyrannical government. To have misunderstood it on this scale – five versus six million – seemed impossible” (158). In her first semester, Westover wrestled with many ‘black holes’ as she referred to them – concepts, events, ideologies that she had framed for her in the lectures recited by her father or the religious texts of the small Mormon library that lived in their home.
Power is a central theme that is increasingly challenged throughout the years, as more of the Westover children chose academic pursuits and began believing in something other than their deific zealot parents. Ultimately, those who chose not to surrender to what Gene Westover decried, including Westover herself, were excommunicated and wiped away like the layer of grime after a day of scraping, shunned from returning home. Appropriately, it is the concept of home that personifies the stretching of Westover’s identity. Home at Buck’s Peak is quiet, chaotic, self-directed, wild, limiting, blue-collar and alternative. Comparatively, home at BYU or Trinity College and even Harvard, was busy, structured, accountable, open-minded, civilized, academic and mainstream. In both places, she was both the happiest and saddest, the safest and the most uncertain, the princess and the scholar.
After all was said and done, at her Grandma-over-in-town’s funeal, observing her family from a distance, the decisive impact of education became clearest to Westover, “the three who had left the mountain, and the four who had stayed. The three with doctorates, and the four without high school diplomas. A chasm had appeared, and was growing.” (326). Westover received her PhD in history, as a scholar of intellectual history. She crafted Educated to be just that – an exploration and comparative recount of how all of her “studying, reading, thinkin
g, travelling” (312) had transformed her.
In a Vanity Fair interview to promote Educated, Westover shows us what pursuit of education looks like when she cites her obsession with & literary appreciation for the New Yorker fiction podcast:
“I’d never read a short story before. I’d never even heard of short stories. I didn’t grow up in a family that . . . Well, we had books, but we didn’t have those kinds of books. I thought, ‘Yeah, I need to get a grip on this thing called narrative arc,’ whatever that is. First I tried Googling it, which was of limited use. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just read a bunch of stories, and then I’ll get a sense of what that means.’ I realized reading books takes a long time. So when I heard of the short story, I thought, ‘Well, I can read more of those because they’re shorter’… I started listening to The New Yorker fiction podcast, with Deborah Treisman, which is just amazing, because you have these writers, they come on, they pick a short story by another writer, they read it, and then they discuss it. They point out all the little tricks, the writer’s mechanisms that they use to make things work. Each chapter [in Educated] is structured like a short story, because I was so obsessed with them.”
While most of Westover’s work will likely be found in the stacks of academia, it’s no surprise that with Educated, she finds herself a 2018 Finalist for both The National Book Critics Circle’s Award in Autobiography & the John Leonard Prize for Best First Book. In fact, it seems perfectly appropriate.
Bookclub-in-a-Box Recommendation: Read this book after a cleansing shower, the aroma of your favourite essential oil diffusing throughout the room and a stack of books-to-read-next nearby. Leave the canned peaches in the pantry for maximum enjoyment.