Chapter 1 Choose the Good My strongest memory is not a memory. It's something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened. The memory was formed when I was five, just before I turned six, from a story my father told in such detail that I and my brothers and sister had each conjured our own cinematic version, with gunfire and shouts. Mine had crickets. That's the sound I hear as my family huddles in the kitchen, lights off, hiding from the Feds who've surrounded the house. A woman reaches for a glass of water and her silhouette is lighted by the moon. A shot echoes like the lash of a whip and she falls. In my memory it's always Mother who falls, and she has a baby in her arms. The baby doesn't make sense--I'm the youngest of my mother's seven children--but like I said, none of this happened. A year after my father told us that story, we gathered one evening to hear him read aloud from Isaiah, a prophecy about Immanuel. He sat on our mustard-colored sofa, a large Bible open in his lap. Mother was next to him. The rest of us were strewn across the shaggy brown carpet. "Butter and honey shall he eat," Dad droned, low and monotone, weary from a long day hauling scrap. "That he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good." There was a heavy pause. We sat quietly. My father was not a tall man but he was able to command a room. He had a presence about him, the solemnity of an oracle. His hands were thick and leathery--the hands of a man who'd been hard at work all his life--and they grasped the Bible firmly. He read the passage aloud a second time, then a third, then a fourth. With each repetition the pitch of his voice climbed higher. His eyes, which moments before had been swollen with fatigue, were now wide and alert. There was a divine doctrine here, he said. He would inquire of the Lord. The next morning Dad purged our fridge of milk, yogurt and cheese, and that evening when he came home, his truck was loaded with fifty gallons of honey. "Isaiah doesn't say which is evil, butter or honey," Dad said, grinning as my brothers lugged the white tubs to the basement. "But if you ask, the Lord will tell you!" When Dad read the verse to his mother, she laughed in his face. "I got some pennies in my purse," she said. "You better take them. They'll be all the sense you got." Grandma had a thin, angular face and an endless store of faux Indian jewelry, all silver and turquoise, which hung in clumps from her spindly neck and fingers. Because she lived down the hill from us, near the highway, we called her Grandma-down-the-hill. This was to distinguish her from our mother's mother, who we called Grandma-over-in-town because she lived fifteen miles south, in the only town in the county, which had a single stoplight and a grocery store. Dad and his mother got along like two cats with their tails tied together. They could talk for a week and not agree about anything, but they were tethered by their devotion to the mountain. My father's family had been living at the base of Buck Peak for a century. Grandma's daughters had married and moved away, but my father stayed, building a shabby yellow house, which he would never quite finish, just up the hill from his mother's, at the base of the mountain, and plunking a junkyard--one of several--next to her manicured lawn. They argued daily, about the mess from the junkyard but more often about us kids. Grandma thought we should be in school and not, as she put it, "roaming the mountain like savages." Dad said public school was a ploy by the Government to lead children away from God. "I may as well surrender my kids to the devil himself," he said, "as send them down the road to that school." God told Dad to share the revelation with the people who lived and farmed in the shadow of Buck Peak. On Sundays, nearly everyone gathered at the church, a hickory-colored chapel just off the highway with the small, restrained steeple common to Mormon churches. Dad cornered fathers as they left their pews. He started with his cousin Jim, who listened good-naturedly while Dad waved his Bible and explained the sinfulness of milk. Jim grinned, then clapped Dad on the shoulder and said no righteous God would deprive a man of homemade strawberry ice cream on a hot summer afternoon. Jim's wife tugged on his arm. As he slid past us I caught a whiff of manure. Then I remembered: the big dairy farm a mile north of Buck Peak, that was Jim's. After Dad took up preaching against milk, Grandma jammed her fridge full of it. She and Grandpa only drank skim but pretty soon it was all there--two percent, whole, even chocolate. She seemed to believe this was an important line to hold. Breakfast became a test of loyalty. Every morning, my family sat around a large square table and ate either seven-grain cereal, with honey and molasses, or seven-grain pancakes, also with honey and molasses. Because there were nine of us, the pancakes were never cooked all the way through. I didn't mind the cereal if I could soak it in milk, letting the cream gather up the grist and seep into the pellets, but since the revelation we'd been having it with water. It was like eating a bowl of mud. It wasn't long before I began to think of all that milk spoiling in Grandma's fridge. Then I got into the habit of skipping breakfast each morning and going straight to the barn. I'd slop the pigs and fill the trough for the cows and horses, then I'd hop over the corral fence, loop around the barn and step through Grandma's side door. On one such morning, as I sat at the counter watching Grandma pour a bowl of cornflakes, she said, "How would you like to go to school?" "I wouldn't like it," I said. "How do you know," she barked. "You ain't never tried it." She poured the milk and handed me the bowl, then she perched at the bar, directly across from me, and watched as I shoveled spoonfuls into my mouth. "We're leaving tomorrow for Arizona," she told me, but I already knew. She and Grandpa always went to Arizona when the weather began to turn. Grandpa said he was too old for Idaho winters; the cold put an ache in his bones. "Get yourself up real early," Grandma said, "around five, and we'll take you with us. Put you in school." I shifted on my stool. I tried to imagine school but couldn't. Instead I pictured Sunday school, which I attended each week and which I hated. A boy named Aaron had told all the girls that I couldn't read because I didn't go to school, and now none of them would talk to me. "Dad said I can go?" I said. "No," Grandma said. "But we'll be long gone by the time he realizes you're missing." She sat my bowl in the sink and gazed out the window. Grandma was a force of nature--impatient, aggressive, self-possessed. To look at her was to take a step back. She dyed her hair black and this intensified her already severe features, especially her eyebrows, which she smeared on each morning in thick, inky arches. She drew them too large and this made her face seem stretched. They were also drawn too high and draped the rest of her features into an expression of boredom, almost sarcasm. "You should be in school," she said. "Won't Dad just make you bring me back?" I said. "Your dad can't make me do a damned thing." Grandma stood, squaring herself. "If he wants you, he'll have to come get you." She hesitated, and for a moment looked ashamed. "I talked to him yesterday. He won't be able to fetch you back for a long while. He's behind on that shed he's building in town. He can't pack up and drive to Arizona, not while the weather holds and he and the boys can work long days." Grandma's scheme was well plotted. Dad always worked from sunup until sundown in the weeks before the first snow, trying to stockpile enough money from hauling scrap and building barns to outlast the winter, when jobs were scarce. Even if his mother ran off with his youngest child, he wouldn't be able to stop working, not until the forklift was encased in ice. "I'll need to feed the animals before we go," I said. "He'll notice I'm gone for sure if the cows break through the fence looking for water." I didn't sleep that night. I sat on the kitchen floor and watched the hours tick by. One a.m. Two. Three. At four I stood and put my boots by the back door. They were caked in manure, and I was sure Grandma wouldn't let them into her car. I pictured them on her porch, abandoned, while I ran off shoeless to Arizona. I imagined what would happen when my family discovered I was missing. My brother Richard and I often spent whole days on the mountain, so it was likely no one would notice until sundown, when Richard came home for dinner and I didn't. I pictured my brothers pushing out the door to search for me. They'd try the junkyard first, hefting iron slabs in case some stray sheet of metal had shifted and pinned me. Then they'd move outward, sweeping the farm, crawling up trees and into the barn attic. Finally, they'd turn to the mountain. It would be past dusk by then--that moment just before night sets in, when the landscape is visible only as darkness and lighter darkness, and you feel the world around you more than you see it. I imagined my brothers spreading over the mountain, searching the black forests. No one would talk; everyone's thoughts would be the same. Things could go horribly wrong on the mountain. Cliffs appeared suddenly. Feral horses, belonging to my grandfather, ran wild over thick banks of water hemlock, and there were more than a few rattlesnakes. We'd done this search before when a calf went missing from the barn. In the valley you'd find an injured animal; on the mountain, a dead one. I imagined Mother standing by the back door, her eyes sweeping the dark ridge, when my father came home to tell her they hadn't found me. My sister, Audrey, would suggest that someone ask Grandma, and Mother would say Grandma had left that morning for Arizona. Those words would hang in the air for a moment, then everyone would know where I'd gone. I imagined my father's face, his dark eyes shrinking, his mouth clamping into a frown as he turned to my mother. "You think she chose to go?" Low and sorrowful, his voice echoed. Then it was drowned out by echoes from another conjured remembrance--crickets, then gunfire, then silence. The event was a famous one, I would later learn--like Wounded Knee or Waco--but when my father first told us the story, it felt like no one in the world knew about it except us. It began near the end of canning season, which other kids probably called "summer." My family always spent the warm months bottling fruit for storage, which Dad said we'd need in the Days of Abomination. One evening, Dad was uneasy when he came in from the junkyard. He paced the kitchen during dinner, hardly touching a bite. We had to get everything in order, he said. There was little time. We spent the next day boiling and skinning peaches. By sundown we'd filled dozens of Mason jars, which were set out in perfect rows, still warm from the pressure cooker. Dad surveyed our work, counting the jars and muttering to himself, then he turned to Mother and said, "It's not enough." That night Dad called a family meeting, and we gathered around the kitchen table, because it was wide and long, and could seat all of us. We had a right to know what we were up against, he said. He was standing at the head of the table; the rest of us perched on benches, studying the thick planks of red oak. "There's a family not far from here," Dad said. "They're freedom fighters. They wouldn't let the Government brainwash their kids in them public schools, so the Feds came after them." Dad exhaled, long and slow. "The Feds surrounded the family's cabin, kept them locked in there for weeks, and when a hungry child, a little boy, snuck out to go hunting, the Feds shot him dead." I scanned my brothers. I'd never seen fear on Luke's face before. "They're still in the cabin," Dad said. "They keep the lights off, and they crawl on the floor, away from the doors and windows. I don't know how much food they got. Might be they'll starve before the Feds give up." No one spoke. Eventually Luke, who was twelve, asked if we could help. "No," Dad said. "Nobody can. They're trapped in their own home. But they got their guns, you can bet that's why the Feds ain't charged in." He paused to sit, folding himself onto the low bench in slow, stiff movements. He looked old to my eyes, worn out. "We can't help them, but we can help ourselves. When the Feds come to Buck Peak, we'll be ready." That night, Dad dragged a pile of old army bags up from the basement. He said they were our "head for the hills" bags. We spent that night packing them with supplies--herbal medicines, water purifiers, flint and steel. Dad had bought a truckload of military MREs--Meals Ready-to-Eat--and we put as many as we could fit into our packs, imagining the moment when, having fled the house and hiding ourselves in the wild plum trees near the creek, we'd eat them. Some of my brothers stowed guns in their packs but I had only a small knife, and even so my pack was as big as me by the time we'd finished. I asked Luke to hoist it onto a shelf in my closet, but Dad told me to keep it low, where I could fetch it quick, so I slept with it in my bed. I practiced slipping the bag onto my back and running with it-- I didn't want to be left behind. I imagined our escape, a midnight flight to the safety of the Princess. The mountain, I understood, was our ally. To those who knew her she could be kind, but to intruders she was pure treachery, and this would give us an advantage. Then again, if we were going to take cover on the mountain when the Feds came, I didn't understand why we were canning all these peaches. We couldn't haul a thousand heavy Mason jars up the peak. Or did we need the peaches so we could bunker down in the house, like the Weavers, and fight it out? Excerpted from Educated: A Memoir All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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.|
School Library Journal Review
|Raised in an alternative Mormon home in rural Idaho, Westover worked as an assistant midwife to her mother and labored in her father's junkyard. Formal schooling wasn't a priority, because her parents believed that public education was government indoctrination and that Westover's future role would be to support her husband. But her older brother's violence and their family's refusal to acknowledge problems at home resulted in the teen contemplating escape through education. Admittance to Brigham Young University was difficult. Westover taught herself enough to receive a decent score on the ACT, but because of her upbringing, she didn't understand rudimentary concepts of sanitation and etiquette, and her learning curve was steep. However, she eventually thrived, earning scholarships to Harvard and Cambridge-though she grappled with whether to include her toxic family in her new life. Born in 1986, Westover interviewed family members to help her write the first half. Her well-crafted account of her early years will intrigue teens, but the memoir's second part, covering her undergraduate and graduate experiences in the "real world," will stun them. VERDICT A gripping, intimate, sometimes shocking, yet ultimately inspiring work. Perfect for fans of memoirs about overcoming traumatic childhoods or escaping from fundamentalist religious communities, such as Jeannette Walls's The Glass Castle and Ruth Wariner's The Sound of Gravel.-Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.|