31 Jan Staff Reads – Educated: A Memoir
by Jamie Schlenk
Educated: A Memoir was one of the most celebrated books of 2018. I first heard about this book when I saw it on Wowbrary this summer. I thought: a book about education, a big red pencil on the cover, and a biography (one of my favorite genres)—how can I lose! After reading the first few chapters, my conceptions about this book were thoroughly blown away, and my continued reading led me to discover one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years.
Ms. Westover has a very fluid writing style. Each chapter seems like an essay on a theme, each chapter flowing into the next one, so that you cannot put it down. The setting is rural Idaho, where she grew up and lived on a remote farm with 6 siblings and her parents. The picture of the beautiful landscape that is painted by her words is in stark contrast with her hard life on the farm. Her parents are fundamentalist Mormons, becoming more what others would call survivalists, living off the land and having very little contact with the outside world. Her father runs a scrapyard where she and her brothers have all worked since they were very young. Her mother is a self-taught herbalist and sometime mid-wife/doctor to the family and a few of the locals. They do not believe in public education, doctors, or any other form of “government” intervention; they are absolutely “off the grid”, waiting for judgement day. Their life is not easy, but it is all they know. Hard work, self-reliance and complete obedience are the order of the day.
One can sense the opening up of the book as Tara begins to find out about the world beyond her home through several forays away from the farm. Two of her brothers eventually leave and go to school. Much to the displeasure of her parents, Tara is intrigued with the concept of education and is eager to learn more than she has from the few sessions of homeschooling her mother erratically provides. At age 17 she experiences her first day at a public school; she begins to secretly study on her own with books left behind by her brothers, and is able to pass the ACT and enter BYU. Through serendipitous encounters with professors and friends who encourage her, Tara is able to eventually earn degrees from Harvard and Cambridge. Through sheer grit and determination, she is able to see the world beyond her closed life on the farm, find success and personal growth, while simultaneously escaping an abusive sibling at home.
If you are looking for a biography of a famous person with names, dates and a huge cast of characters, then this is not the book for you. But if you want to read a beautifully written coming of age story with real-life drama in a small corner of the world—a story that illuminates the true meaning of “education” as a means to self-discovery and freedom—then do consider this book.