New York Times Review
AMERICA HAS STRUGGLED with the Urbanrural divide for centuries, stretching all the way back to when Manhattan's own Alexander Hamilton fixed his sights on backwoods whiskey distilleries as a revenue source for the new Republic, prompting rebellion. But one could make the case that the divide has never consumed us as much as it does today. The political parties are aligned more than ever around blue metropolises and red spaces in between. Economic growth is now so glaringly concentrated in certain urban areas that it has reignited the age-old debate over staying vs. going. Should the young and ambitious from struggling small towns and cities be encouraged to seek their fortune in the hotbeds of dynamism and overpriced Sunday brunch, or does this only sunder family ties and hasten the collapse of the interior? It was this dilemma that helped make J. D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" a runaway best seller in 2016 - the tale of a young man who'd overcome the dysfunctions of his transplanted Appalachian family to ascend to the Ivy League and Silicon Valley, with plenty of culture shocks along the way. Yet Tara Westover's new tale of escape, "Educated," makes Vance's seem tame by comparison. Where Vance wrote affectingly of showing up at Ohio State and Yale Law with the limited preparation provided by his middling schools in Middletown, Ohio, Westover describes showing up in college with no schooling at all. Where Vance describes a family contending with the all-too-common burdens of substance abuse, Westover lays bare a family cursed by ideological mania and outlandish physical trauma. If Vance's memoir offered street-heroin-grade drama, Westover's is carfentanil, the stuff that tranquilizes elephants. The extremity of Westover's upbringing emerges gradually through her telling, which only makes the telling more alluring and harrowing. The basics are these: Now in her early 30s, she was the youngest of seven in a survivalist family in the shadow of a mountain in a Mormon pocket of southeastern Idaho. Her father, Gene (a pseudonym), grew up on a farm at the base of the mountain, the son of a hot-tempered father, and moved up the slope with his wife, the product of a more genteel upbringing in the nearby small town. Gene sustained his growing family by building barns and hay sheds and by scrapping metal in his junkyard; his wife, Faye (also a pseudonym), chipped in with her income from mixing up herbal remedies and from her reluctant work as an unlicensed midwife's assistant and then midwife. During his 20s, Gene's edgy and not uncharismatic intensity morphed into politically charged paranoia, fueled by what the reader is led to presume is a severe case of bipolar disorder. Around the age of 30, he pulled his eldest children from school to protect them from the Illuminati, though they, at least, had the benefit of a birth certificate, an indulgence the youngest four would be denied. In theory, the children were being home-schooled; in reality, there was virtually no academic instruction to speak of. They learned to read from the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the speeches of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. The only science book in the house was for young children, full of glossy illustrations. The bulk of their time was spent helping their parents at work. Barely into her teens, Westover graduated from helping her mom mix remedies and birth babies to sorting scrap with her dad, who had the unnerving habit of inadvertently hitting her with pieces he'd tossed. Getting hit with a steel cylinder square in the gut was the least of the risks in the Westover household. The book is, among other things, a catalog of job-site horrors: fingers lost, legs gashed, bodies horribly burned. No pointy-headed bureaucrat could make a stronger case for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration than do the unregulated Westovers with their many calamities. Making matters worse is Gene's refusal to allow any of the injured and wounded (himself included) to seek medical attention beyond his wife's tinctures - "God's pharmacy" - a refusal that also greatly exacerbates the effects of two terrible car accidents. "God and his angels are here, working right alongside us," he tells Westover. "They won't let you get hurt." When she gets tonsillitis, he tells her to stand outside with her mouth open so that the sun can work its magic. She does, for a month. As time goes on, the conflict between father and daughter gathers as inevitably as the lengthening fall shadows from Buck's Peak above. Gene's fervor and paranoia are undiminished by the failure of the world to end at Y2K, despite his ample preparations. (Westover offers the pathosfilled image of her father sitting expressionless in front of "The Honeymooners" as the world ticks quietly onward.) Meanwhile, she is starting to test the boundaries of an upbringing more tightly constricted than she can even begin to imagine. Her venture into a local dance class ends with her father condemning the group's painfully modest performance outfits as whorish. Encouraged by an older brother who started studying covertly and eventually left for college, Westover attempts to do likewise, reading deep into her father's books on the 19th-century Mormon prophets. "The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand," she writes with characteristic understatement. (Only very occasionally is Westover's assured prose marred by unnecessary curlicues.) As if her father's tyranny is not enough, she must contend also with sadistic physical attacks from a different brother, whose instability was worsened by a 12-foot headfirst plunge onto rebar in yet another Westover workplace accident. Tara makes her first big step toward liberation by, remarkably, doing well enough on the ACT to gain admission to Brigham Young University. ("It proves one thing at least," her father says grudgingly. "Our home school is as good as any public education.") There, she is shocked by the profane habits of her classmates, like the roommate who wears pink plush pajamas with "Juicy" emblazoned on the rear, and in turn shocks her classmates with her ignorance, never more so than when she asks blithely in art history class what the Holocaust was. (Other new discoveries for her: Napoleon, Martin Luther King Jr., the fact that Europe is not a country.) Such excruciating moments do not keep professors from recognizing her talent and voracious hunger to learn; soon enough, she's off to a fellowship at Cambridge University, where a renowned professor - a Holocaust expert, no less - can't help exclaiming when he meets her: "How marvelous. It's as if I've stepped into Shaw's 'Pygmalion.' " Westover eventually makes it to Harvard for another fellowship and then back to Cambridge to pursue her Ph.D. in history. Even then, she's not yet fully sprung, so deeply rooted are the tangled familial claims of loyalty, guilt, shame and, yes, love. It is only when the final, wrenching break from most of her family arrives that one realizes just how courageous this testimonial really is. These disclosures will take a toll. But one is also left convinced that the costs are worth it. By the end, Westover has somehow managed not only to capture her unsurpassably exceptional upbringing, but to make her current situation seem not so exceptional at all, and resonant for many others. She is but yet another young person who left home for an education, now views the family she left across an uncomprehending ideological canyon, and isn't going back. ? Westover lays beire a family cursed by ideological mania and outlandish physical trauma. alec macgillis covers government and politics for ProPublica. He is the author of "The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell."
Publishers Weekly Review
A girl claws her way out of a claustrophobic, violent fundamentalist family into an elite academic career in this searing debut memoir. Westover recounts her upbringing with six siblings on an Idaho farm dominated by her father Gene (a pseudonym), a devout Mormon with a paranoid streak who tried to live off the grid, kept four children (including the author) out of school, refused to countenance doctors (Westover's mother, Faye, was an unlicensed midwife who sold homeopathic medicines), and stockpiled supplies and guns for the end-time. Westover was forced to work from the age of 11 in Gene's scrap and construction businesses under incredibly dangerous conditions; the grisly narrative includes lost fingers, several cases of severe brain trauma, and two horrible burns that Faye treated with herbal remedies. Thickening the dysfunction was the author's bullying brother, who physically brutalized her for wearing makeup and other immodest behaviors. When she finally escaped the toxic atmosphere of dogma, suspicion, and patriarchy to attend college and then grad school at Cambridge, her identity crisis precipitated a heartbreaking rupture. Westover's vivid prose makes this saga of the pressures of conformity and self-assertion that warp a family seem both terrifying and ordinary. (Feb.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.