We chose Tara Westover’s memoir Educated to kick off the A Little Bird book club because we felt that, although her particular circumstances are unusual, this is a book that will be resonant for many readers. This week, it was longlisted for the prestigious Wellcome Book Prize. Westover already numbers among her fans former US President Barack Obama, who called the writer to discuss her book. He praised Westover’s first book as a “remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind”. The last point is significant – whilst Educated can be seen as a clarion call for education, Westover’s motivation (perhaps surprisingly) does not seem to be sheer rage.
The first half of the book deals with Westover’s childhood as the youngest of five children in a radical survivalist Mormon family and is full of warm memories. She often depicts herself laughing and is amused when her father angrily rebuffs his mother in law for suggesting his children wash their hands after they go to the toilet. His wisecracking response is ‘”I teach them not to piss on their hands”’ which maxim Westover comforts herself with once she leaves home and her roommates disapprove of her attitude to basic hygiene.
This is one of the ways in which she demonstrates how deeply her family’s beliefs and habits are embedded in her. Her birth was not registered until she was nine years old and she is barely educated as a child, not attending school and hardly being home schooled. Her family also avoid conventional medical treatment, instead relying on tinctures of herbs that her mother makes. When Westover – a keen singer – develops tonsillitis, her father instructs her to stand outside in the winter sun with her mouth open to cure it. She does this every day for a month. More seriously, Westover and her siblings were expected to help their parents with their work. When she was small, she would accompany her mother on long walks, looking for yarrow or rosehips to make tinctures with but as she grew older, she was expected to help her father sort scrap. This latter occupation was full of danger, initially because her father was liable to accidentally hit her with bits of scrap he tossed away. The injuries to Westover and her siblings soon became far more serious: “We had been bruised and gashed and concussed, had our legs set on fire and our heads cut open.” One of her brothers, unsurprisingly becomes increasingly violent and unpredictable after he plunges 12 feet headfirst onto a rebar in a workplace accident supervised by father.
What stops this from reading like a misery memoir is Westover’s affection for her family but also, the developing sense that she is working to escape the confines of it. Her autonomy is heart-breakingly hard-won which is partly what makes it seem so real. There is an enormous upswing of hope in this narrative but Westover is also repeatedly defeated in her attempts to win minor freedoms for herself. When she joins a local dance class, her father furiously condemns the modest outfit she wears as whoreish. This is a word that the men in Westover’s family attack her with whilst she is still a child and one can only wonder how much work she has done to unpick the psychological damage of this.
Westover does eventually leave home and makes it to Cambridge to study. A professor there is astonished when she admits she did not attend school and he compares her to Eliza Doolittle, saying “It’s as if I’ve stepped into Shaw’s Pygmalion.” The most jaw-dropping scene in the book may be when she asks what the word “Holocaust” means during a lecture and is assumed to be mocking the subject because no one can believe she really doesn’t know what it means.
Westover is clearly a remarkable person but her great skill is to make her upbringing and her need to escape her family chime with so many others. Few of us may have had to defy our families in order to survive but each of us has had to leave home.
What did you think? Please leave your comments below…And find details about our February book club here.