Title: Educated: A Memoir
Author: Tara Westover
Genre(s): nonfiction, autobiography, memoir
Length: 334 pages
Published: February 20, 2018
Tara Westover grew up in the shadow of Idahoan mountains, hauling scrap metal, learning midwifery from her mother, and preparing for the end of the world that her father thought for sure was coming. The Westover children received little input from the outside world, an incomplete education, herbal remedies to treat severe injuries, and isolation from peers and extended relatives. This made it easy for the family’s dysfunction and violence to go unnoticed and unaddressed. Only when Tara’s older brother broke away and went to college did Tara begin to think of a different life, and her struggle to learn the truth about the outside world, her family, and herself is documented in detail in the pages of Educated: A Memoir.
One of my favorite things about good prose is when the narrator—real or fictional—sounds like a friend sitting across from you, telling a story. That’s precisely how Westover’s memoir reads and is one of the reasons I became enthralled with the story. Here’s an example of what I mean (from page 3):
After Dad took up preaching against milk, Grandma jammed her fridge full of it. She and Grandpa only drank skim but pretty soon it was all there—two percent, whole, even chocolate. She seemed to believe this was an important line to hold.
Breakfast became a test of loyalty. Every morning, my family sat around a large table of reworked red oak and at either seven-grain cereal, with honey and molasses, or seven-grain pancakes, also with honey and molasses. Because there were nine of us, the pancakes were never cooked all the way through. I didn’t mind the cereal if I could soak it in milk, letting the cream gather up the grist and seep into the pellets, but since the revelation we’d been having it with water. It was like eating a bowl of mud.
While descriptive, Westover is also straightforward in her word choices, which creates a certain cadence that propels even the tiniest, simplest details forward. But even more interesting is how this style is paired with the very personal feelings and observations of Westover’s memory and perspective—while she’s a credible narrator, it’s also clear that everything she writes is simply her experiences and fallible memory. Pairing the subjectivity of her perspective with a clear but descriptive prose is the perfect combination. There was never a time where I felt as if I wanted to skip parts of her story, except in the sense that her story is a hard one to process.
The “characters” of Educated: A Memoir are Tara, her family, and eventually the friends, professors, and acquaintances she meets once she’s away from her childhood home—although many names have been changed for the sake of privacy. In that way it’s hard to call them characters, but nevertheless, they’re a compelling cast: her bipolar, radically religious father; her earthy, overwhelmed mother; her stubborn and outspoken grandparents down the road; her violent and manipulative older brother, Shawn; her soft-spoken, creative brother, Tyler; the list goes on and on. Each of them is flawed—some very deeply so—and the dysfunction that’s brought about because of her father’s instability is like watching a train crash and burn. However, it’s the deep realism of the story that makes the people involved so interesting.
Since Educated is a memoir, the plot is more like a journey with Tara from her early childhood into adulthood. It’s known from the beginning that education, and her eventual ability to receive one, is a pivotal theme that drives the way the scenes are put together in the book. Chronological time is also a large influencer on the sequence of the story. In that sense, then, the plot of Educated is very well structured, easy to follow, and thorough.
The majority of the events in this book take place on the Westover family homestead, tucked away in the mountains of Idaho. However, as the story goes on and Tara moves, we also get to see her experiences in nearby towns, college, and overseas studies. The specifics of where the story takes place are not nearly as important as how well Westover brings them alive by her prose style—it’s easy to be transported into the events in a chapter or scene and feel as if the place is as real to you as it was to the author.
Educated is not an easy story to read, and Westover’s honesty about her life means reading content that some people may not feel comfortable with. Sexual content is low, but violent content—from severe injuries to physical, emotional, and verbal abuse—steadily become more prevalent as Westover grows older. There are characters that clearly have mental disorders that go untreated, leading them to violent and erratic behavior, and Westover herself is manipulated and abused by one of her siblings. Many of those violent scenes are told in detail. In addition, language can be coarse and certain characters repeatedly use racial slurs and derogatory insults.
Education was one of the first memoirs I’ve read on my own accord, and in my mind, it’s the perfect example of what a memoir should be. Westover’s writing style is balanced between descriptive and concise, personal and objective, and her story is one that’s so absurd to people who’ve grown up and lived without dysfunction that it’s hard to put it down. She tells her story and perspective with honesty. It’s for that same reason that I don’t recommend this book to everyone—the details of the abuse and dysfunction in her family is not a light read, and some will find it too much to handle. However, this memoir is nevertheless compelling and expertly written, which is why I give it a solid four stars.