Educated, by Tara Westover*****

educatedTara Westover’s memoir has created a lot of buzz, and all of it is justified. It’s the story of one woman’s journey from a fundamentally loving yet untenable home life, to the civilized world she has been raised to fear. Each chapter focuses on one meaningful event in the author’s life, and it’s told with sensitivity, grace, and yes, also a sprinkling of rage, because how can she not? But all told, Westover permits the balm of time and distance to balance her perspective.  This book is for sale now, and it’s going to be read for a very long time.

I received my copy of Educated free and early, thanks to Random House and Net Galley. That said, if you have to pay full jacket price for this book, your money will be well spent.

Westover grows up in a large family that is nominally Mormon (Latter Day Saints, or LDS), but she and her siblings are denied the tight-knit communal bond that most members of that faith experience.  Their father is deeply suspicious of the outside world including other church members, and as his pathology grows, they are increasingly isolated. Basic social expectations such as personal hygiene and clean clothing; inoculations against deadly diseases; a birth certificate; and an understanding of how to navigate within the greater society are denied her, as Dad’s survivalist views kick into gear. She is told the story of Ruby Ridge from the time she is tiny, but grows up believing this is an event that has happened to her own family, and that Federal agents might break into her own home at any time.

Veteran teachers like me are fascinated by the differences in how students process traumatic events, and Westover is a strong case in point. Some students experience the death of a beloved grandparent or divorcing parents, and they come undone and aren’t able to function normally for several years. Then there are remarkable young people like Westover that experience horror after horror exponentially and yet somehow, with little external assistance, they are able to claw themselves free of the rubble and become high achievers.

As Westover leaves home against the strident objections of her father, she struggles to reconcile the wider world with everything that she has been taught from the cradle, and she also struggles to win her family’s forgiveness and acceptance. As she is battered, sometimes physically, by one cruel rejection after another, a friend asks her, “Have you ever thought maybe you should just let them go?” And yet, for Tara, this is unthinkable.

There’s a lot of gritty material here, along with a number of experiences that are just weird, such as Tara’s brain-damaged mother becoming a local folk hero with her own brand of witch-doctor medicine.  There are also moments of dark humor that break up the misery and terror, along with an occasional kind or enlightening act on the part of a family member or member of the public that is able to wink through for a brief time in Tara’s life. But ultimately the thing that makes it possible to wade through the nightmare that constitutes much of Tara’s childhood is our knowledge, set within the book’s title and author description, that she will emerge triumphant.

Westover tells us that the bizarre system of beliefs and taboos practiced by her family are not typical of Mormon families, and in fact a bishop that counsels her once she arrives at Brigham Young University tries to help her separate herself, to some degree, from the madness that awaits her at home during school breaks.  This reviewer grew up alongside a number of Mormon classmates, and I have to agree that none of the things Westover’s parents brought down on her and her siblings is attributable to that church. That’s not how they work.

I highlighted dozens of passages that range from the wry, to the stupefying, to the outrageous, but when all is said and done, each is better when read within context. Go out and get this book. You won’t be sorry, and at the end of it, you’re almost guaranteed to look at your own family in a gentler light.


Interview with Westover:

The Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks *****

RuleofBoneBooks by Banks never disappoint. His writing is as harsh and beautiful as a New England winter. Rule of the Bone speaks with a social conscience that cannot be ignored or denied. The voice he uses carries credibility and authority characteristic of the seasoned master of fiction the writer has become.

This story is told in the first person. The protagonist is what those of us who work with poor kids refer to as a “throw-away”, those who don’t run away from home but are simply not welcome there anymore at an early age. Often, as is the case with the fourteen year old boy who renames himself Bone, it is a step-parent who in one way or another initiates the departure of a child who is far too young to make his own way in the world, and the birth parent who is passive and therefore complicit. Without job skills, social or interviewing skills, or any knowledge of how the social welfare system works apart from the fact that it doesn’t, he becomes a feral child, finding indoor shelter wherever he can: hiding in a custodial closet when the mall shuts down for the night; crashing with a biker gang that is dangerous and unpredictable but who tolerate his presence most days because he can find weed for them; and in an abandoned school bus.

Twice he tries to initiate a reconciliation with his mother and stepfather; twice he is spurned. His grandmother is no better. It is appalling, but also realistic. These kids are out there, and I am glad Banks put that fact in front of us. The protagonist points out that once he has been busted and released into the custody of his parents with the stipulation that he remain with them, and once they tell him to get gone (again), his way out of jail is to avoid parents, cops, and school, because each one of them will call another one of them in an effort to pass him to someone else. And the horrible truth is that he is right.

Our unlikely hero realizes that in his quest for survival, he has never actually learned what is right and wrong. None of his parents (mother, departed father, stepfather) has demonstrated any sort of consistent moral code, and he is cast adrift not only materially, but also in terms of his emotional growth and the development of his character. He finds it in a really unlikely place.

Like nearly everything Banks writes, Rule of the Bone is deeply disturbing in places and full of loss and anger. I have struggled with this when reading other books by this writer. Disturbing books are all the more disturbing when they are so well done that we cannot look away.

To other readers who have noted this (in reference to some of the other reviews I have read), I would advise that if you can’t take it, don’t read it. There’s no law saying you have to read this writer. Particularly if you have recently dealt with loss and are tender around the edges, go find another novelist. If you need a feel-good book, there are plenty of them out there.

For myself, I resolved my conflict of wanting to read one of America’s finest novelists versus wanting to avoid the abyss of depression they often inspire, by reading multiple books at a time. I move from Banks, to a nonfiction title, to a cozy feel good title, then back to Banks. Of course, there comes a point in the plot where Rule of the Bone can’t be put down, which is one more way we know it’s excellent literature. At that point, it’s time to dive in and finish.

I’m glad I chose to return to this man’s work. The tone is bleak, and yet in this case, it also carries with it a poignant sense of hope and yearning. Highly recommended.