Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home


By Tara Westover
Random House, 2018

This beautifully written memoir is on the best seller list, and deserves to be.

Tara, the youngest of seven children of a fundamentalist Mormon family, never went to public school. Instead, she worked from the age of ten as a babysitter, in a grocery store, and for her father in his scrapyard. She also helped her mother midwife babies, and used elementary first aid skills when her family members were injured, which was often. Amazingly, encouraged by one of her older brothers, who had escaped through going to college, Tara took a college entrance test at the age of sixteen and was admitted to Brigham Young University. Eventually she went on to earn a doctorate at Cambridge University.

What struck me about this memoir – and I have been reading a lot of survivalist and counter-cultural memoirs lately, researching my new novel – was how intelligent the members of this family were. Given Tara’s father’s religiosity, which bordered on insanity, and his psychological hold on the family, the five sons and both daughters managed to support themselves while still very young. The father shouted that women should not work outside the home, but pushed his reluctant wife into being a midwife. With the money she earned, she put in a phone line to the house.

Except for the phone, the trucks and cars, this could be life in the American West in the nineteenth century.

Tara portrays her parents with unflinching realism. Her mother constantly placated her father, who, though not deliberately violent with his family, made dangerous decisions, including not trusting the medical profession. Even when one of his sons was so badly injured in a motor-cycle accident that Tara, coming upon the scene, could see his brain through the head-wound, the father wanted Tara to bring the boy home so his mother could treat him. To her credit, Tara took him to the hospital.

Tara’s internal conflicts make up the core of this story. One suspects that what made her so conflicted, as opposed to so angry at her father’s treatment of his family is that when he did get pushback from them, he allowed whatever it was they wanted to do. His control over them was actually weaker than any of them believed. Tara Westover’s love for her family and for the Idaho mountain where they lived, pitted against her determination to make something of herself, makes this a compelling read.

The Secret Life of Mrs. London

By Rebecca Rosenberg
Lake Union Publishing, 2018

I am at Jack London Square in Oakland, California, as I write this. Only its location as a terminus of the ferry to San Francisco reminds us now of London’s love of the sea and of nature. In this historical novel Rebecca Rosenberg reminds us of California in the early twentieth century – a growing, vibrant, place where there was room to build a new society among the redwoods and ranches.

Jack London was one of California’s most influential early writers, a best seller who pursued new ideas of socialism and sustainability while mortgaging himself to the hilt to become a land baron, collecting admirers, and drinking round the clock. He also had a wife who was his close collaborator. Yet Charmian, who was as bright, ambitious, as intellectually curious, and even wealthier than he in her own right, has been forgotten.

Beginning eight or so years into the marriage, the novel shows Charmian’s growing frustration with Jack’s waning desire for her, even as she does everything for him.

He says, “It’s the institution of marriage that strangles love, isn’t it?…over the years the face of your beloved becomes as familiar as your own.”

She says, “You take my visions and ideas and turn them into literature that will be praised and read by generations to come…I tell myself it’s enough to be part of your genius. But is it? Is it really?”

This classic interplay between writer and his female muse infuses the novel, whose tension gathers with Charmian’s increasing frustration. She’s a writer too, but because she’s a woman, is seen only as his wife and typist. In Rosenberg’s excellent portrayal, we are in Charmian’s head, unable to work a way out of her dilemma. Her constant attention to Jack’s needs becomes claustrophobic. Rosenberg cleverly uses the escape artist Houdini, a friend of Jack and Charmian London, as a metaphor as well as a key plot element to enable her to unlock the key to a wider world.

Rosenberg writes evocatively of the gorgeous natural environment of Glen Ellen, a place where vineyards now thrive, of Hawaii and of the cities of the East Coast on the brink of America’s involvement in World War I. But it is her insightful and compassionate understanding of the complex relationship between two brilliant people that really makes this novel stand out.

Highly recommended.