Book club reads Educated by Tara Westover

Book club unanimously endorsed Tara Westover’s well-received novel of growing up in a survivalist Mormon home in the hills of Idaho. The words used to describe it included: compelling, horrifying, unbelievable, shocking, inspiring, and head shaking. Yes, this memoir had a profound effect on all of us. I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.

A quick synopsis: Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough to be admitted to Brigham Young University. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her to Harvard and Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

We found much to discuss. Who and what influenced Tara and set her on a path to become educated? Where did she get the strength and determination to change her life? What factors caused her brother Shawn to be both loving and abusive to his young sister? What aspects of the Mormon faith drove the behaviour of Tara’s father? Who betrayed Tara and how? Why did Tara’s mother fail to protect her children from their father? Does the title refer to Tara’s formal education or some broader concept of education? Did Tara write her memoir from a position of anger or hurt or love? We debated each question enthusiastically and with compassion.

My own reading of Educated produced over 100 highlights.

Describing her mountain home: “In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.”

About learning at home: “Learning in our family was entirely self-directed: you could learn anything you could teach yourself, after your work was done.”

Her father’s paranoia (there are many sentences related to this): “Dad took a twenty from his wallet and crumpled it. ‘Not this fake money. In the Days of Abomination, this won’t be worth a thing. People will trade hundred-dollar bills for a roll of toilet paper.”

Her father’s position on school: “whoring after man’s knowledge instead of God’s”

On taking dancing lessons: “I was ashamed to see so much of my legs. Dad said a righteous woman never shows anything above her ankle.” and “Learning to dance felt like learning to belong.”

On her upbringing: “All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine — that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.” and a little later: “What kind of lunatic would come back here once he’d escaped?”

On being in the outside world: “for the first time I felt the immensity of the gap. I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles [her father’s word for other Mormons], on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between.”

Two of Tara’s personal insights: “To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty but in this frailty there is a strength.” and “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you.”

I could go on! The story of Tara’s family and what she endured and how she survived will stay with me for a very long time.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


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11 Responses

  1. I’m reading this book for my book club meeting in Limerick next Monday. A fascinating read. I’m very interested in the questions you picked for discussion, Mary. Very similar to what I’ve noted for our meeting!

      1. Hi Mary,
        Thanks for asking. There were just five of us there and we had a great discussion. One person found the author’s account of her family life difficult to believe while the rest of us were enthralled. We spent some time talking about how much a reader can trust a memoir. (I come from the city Frank McCourt described in Angela’s Ashes, so we are familiar with differences in how people remember the same events. ☺️) The discussion included: the pull of family loyalty; the respective roles of family and society in forming a person; survivalism; the transformative power of education; the writing style. We all agreed that it was good to see how many people helped Tara along the way. The character we found most interesting was the mother. Altogether, a very good read leading to a very good discussion. The joy of books and book clubs!

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