Tara Westover's 'Educated' Explores Childhood, Family, and Making Peace With Your Past
Welcome to Must Reads, where we review our favourite novels, memoirs, non-fiction books and more. For this instalment, we are reviewing Tara Westover's incredible memoir, Educated, which you can shop now in The Reads. Collection.
Educated by Tara Westover is one of the most inspiring, heartbreaking, and wildly successful memoirs of recent times. It's the kind of book that keeps pulling you in deeper with every page, and lingers in your mind for a long time after. It's about isolation and enlightenment, and what ideological extremism looks like in practice.
Westover grew up in Buck's Peak, Idaho, the youngest of seven in a survivalist Mormon family. With no birth certificate, no immunisations and no formal education, she spent her childhood helping her mother mix herbs and her father haul scrap metal, not only managing to survive but also somehow inching closer to escape.
Neatly organised into three parts, Educated begins with Westover's childhood. She describes the spectacular surrounds of her mountain home, and the school bus that passes by every day without stopping. She remembers spending time with her brothers breaking in horses, and her father's nightly lounge-room sermons that followed long days in the scrapyard and barely evading one gruesome injury after another.
Early on in Educated, Westover recalls a story her father told one night about a neighbour family. He called them "freedom fighters" and said they'd been trapped inside their house for weeks now, held hostage by federal agents all because they wouldn't let the government brainwash their kids. "When the Feds come to Buck Peak, we'll be ready," she remembers him saying.
That night he instructed the kids to pack a "Head for the hills" bag so they would be ready to go when the time came. Inside each one: herbal medicines, water purifiers, flint, steel, and ready-to-eat meals intended for military personnel. A few days later, he arrived home with a dozen or so military-grade rifles and a bullet-making machine.
Instead of "Summer", Westover had "canning season". Instead of friends, she had her brothers—one of whom bullied and abused her for years. Instead of in history class, she learned about the Holocaust and slavery for the first time in college. The book's second part focuses on Westover's arrival at Mormon-owned Brigham Young University and her first romantic relationship. Its third sees her travel to Cambridge to study her PhD, and attempt to reconnect with her family.
When a story this unique, this personal and this extreme is told with such grace, that's when it becomes truly universal. Far from a dispassionate retelling, Educated admits the problematic nature of memory—especially where a traumatic childhood is concerned—and refuses condemn on any one party.
Instead of demanding judgement, Westover, staying on brand, encourages learning. In reading her memoir you will learn about so many topics relevant to present day: resilience, racism, America, religious fanaticism, mental illness, as well as what it's like to have to reject everything you were told and start from scratch. The ultimate effect, if you choose it, is one of empowerment, with Westover seeming to say that if she can do it, you can too.