“I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt. The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling. Down below, the valley is peaceful, undisturbed. Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air. Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base. If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess.”
That’s the first paragraph from Educated by Tara Westover. I’m Quinn Rose, and this is Recently Read.
Educated is a memoir about Westover’s life growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. Because of her father’s mistrust of the government, she never attended school, never went to the hospital, and didn’t get a birth certificate until she was nine years old. It starts with her earliest memories and has a particular focus on two threads throughout her life: her eventual journey towards formal education that ultimately led to earning a PhD from Cambridge, and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her older brother and by extension, her parents.
I am not exactly the first person to review Educated. It has been immensely successful and ranked as one of the best books of 2018 by every major person or publication you can think of, including Bill Gates and Michelle Obama. But I know you’re just dying to hear what Quinn Rose thinks, so here we go.
I am not going to argue with the masses here: Educated is extraordinary. It has some of the most skillful and captivating prose I’ve ever read, especially in a nonfiction book. I was metaphorically on the edge of my seat and literally holding my breath more than once as her story unfolded.
It is also incredibly difficult to read. There are numerous vivid depictions of horrific accidents and both physical and psychological abuse. I was brought to tears over and over again as I considered the immense pain that Tara and her siblings were subjected to throughout their lives by their parents’ refusal to treat them with modern medicine. Her father placed them in reckless danger in the junkyard where he made his living. Her older brother nearly destroyed her, and she does not shy away from describing both the excruciating abuse she experienced and the heartbreaking ways she convinced herself that she deserved it, or it wasn’t real.
The very existence of this memoir could be considered a spoiler, since this kind of story can only be told after someone has escaped. But while the end of Educated does offer a certain amount of resolution, there are no easy answers here. There is no clean bow that can be tied around Tara’s relationship to her parents, to her father’s probable undiagnosed bipolar disorder, to the war she had to fight in her own mind to break free of the limitations of her upbringing. It is not a unilateral condemnation of her parents nor is it a dismissal of what she had been subjected to under their watch.
You should read this book because it’s beautifully written and achingly personal. You should read it because it’s full of nuance and meticulous consideration of the complications of love and family. You should read it because even as it shakes you to your core, it grants you hope for the strength of people and the power of education. This book is an education in itself, but more than that, it’s an urging to the reader to consider their own life and history as closely as Tara had to when she traveled away and discovered a world and perspective at odds with the one she’d grown up with her whole life. Don’t read this book because you’re looking for it to tell you an answer: read it because you’re looking for the right questions.