Book of the Month: Educated by Tara Westover (2018)
“This story, remarkable as it is, might be merely another entry in the subgenre of extreme American life, were it not for the uncommon perceptiveness of the person telling it. Westover examines her childhood with unsparing clarity, and, more startlingly, with curiosity and love, even for those who have seriously failed or wronged her. In part, this is a book about being a stranger in a strange land; Westover, adrift at university, can’t help but miss her mountain home. But her deeper subject is memory. Westover is careful to note the discrepancies between her own recollections and those of her relatives. (The ones who still speak to her, anyway. Her parents cut her off long ago.) “Part of me will always believe that my father’s words ought to be my own,” she writes. If her book is an act of defiance, a way to set the record of her own life straight, it’s also an attempt to understand, even to respect, those whom she had to break away from in order to get free.”
Schwartz, Alexandra, “Educated,” by Tara Westover, The New Yorker, June 18, 2018
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.
The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.
Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.
I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.
My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened. The memory was formed when I was five, just before I turned six, from a story my father told in such detail that I and my brothers and sister had each conjured our own cinematic version, with gunfire and shouts. Mine had crickets. That’s the sound I hear as my family huddles in the kitchen, lights off, hiding from the Feds who’ve surrounded the house. A woman reaches for a glass of water and her silhouette is lighted by the moon. A shot echoes like the lash of a whip and she falls. In my memory it’s always Mother who falls, and she has a baby in her arms. The baby doesn’t make sense – I’m the youngest of my mother’s seven children – but like I said, none of this happened.
A year after my father told us that story, we gathered one evening to hear him read aloud from Isaiah, a prophecy about Immanuel. He sat on our mustard-colored sofa, a large Bible open in his lap. Mother was next to him. The rest of us were strewn across the shaggy brown carpet.
“Butter and honey shall he eat,” Dad droned, low and monotone, weary from a long day hauling scrap. “That he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.”
There was a heavy pause. We sat quietly.
My father was not a tall man but he was able to command a room. He had a presence about him, the solemnity of an oracle. His hands were thick and leathery – the hands of a man who’d been hard at work all his life – and they grasped the Bible firmly.
He read the passage aloud a second time, then a third, then a fourth. With each repetition the pitch of his voice climbed higher. His eyes, which moments before had been swollen with fatigue, were now wide and alert. There was a divine doctrine here, he said. He would inquire of the Lord.
The next morning Dad purged our fridge of milk, yogurt and cheese, and that evening when he came home, his truck was loaded with fifty gallons of honey.
“Isaiah doesn’t say which is evil, butter or honey,” Dad said, grinning as my brothers lugged the white tubs to the basement. “But if you ask, the Lord will tell you!”