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.