There was a lot of hype about this book back in 2018, when it was released. Barak Obama nominated it as one of his five favourite books over summer that year, Bill Gates put it on his holiday reading list. It was named as one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, O, The Oprah Magazine, Time, NPR, Good Morning America, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Guardian. And I think that here in Australia, I recommended that my library buy it (which it probably would have done in any case) and then I took four years to actually read it- by which time I’d bought it on special on my Kobo instead.
I can see why it received such acclaim in the United States. I can see the appeal of a story of a young Mormon girl from Idaho – could anything be more American than a Mormon?- who overcame her father’s paranoid survivalist beliefs about government and her rudimentary home-school education to attend elite universities in both United Kingdom and America and to achieve her PhD. The book has that rather furtive appeal of trauma narratives: a genre and publishing phenomena that is starting to devour itself by becoming rather too commonplace.
Tara is the youngest of seven children to Gene and Faye Westover. The family’s financial success rested very much on her mother’s work as a midwife and herbalist/healer, while Gene enlisted his children in his metal recovery business which sprawled over their farm property. There was an extended but estranged family, because both grandmothers disapproved of Gene and his anti-government stance. This was a threadbare upbringing, isolated even from other congregants in their Mormon church, whom Tara’s father thought too wishy-washy. The children received little encouragement to undertake their home schooling and they were expected to labour in a dangerous work environment alongside their father. At various stages, members of the family including her brother and father received horrendous injuries that were treated within the home. Her older brother Shawn is a menacing presence throughout the book, physically and emotionally, and I would not have been surprised had it been sexually as well (although she does not say this). It was another older brother, Tyler, who encouraged her to follow his example in leaving home to go to college. This involved essentially a period of self-education from textbooks, and she achieved entry to Brigham Young University. Although a Mormon university, here she was challenged by living with Mormon girls whose upbringing had been much freer than hers had been. She did well, and eventually achieved a scholarship to Cambridge University in UK where she received encouragement from historian Professor Jonathan Steinberg and Professor David Runciman. It is quite amazing to think of someone coming to undergraduate-level material with absolutely no pre-exposure to academic conventions and ‘received’ wisdom, context or media exposure. I guess that there would be a purity there, but also a type of shallowness as well- to say nothing of the sheer hard work it must have taken to cover what other students would have absorbed almost by osmosis. She completed her PhD and seems to have returned to the United States.
The book is written in a fairly simple, unadorned style and at first I found myself wondering whether she had the writing skills to complete a PhD. But once she started writing about her subject matter, the writing kicked up several notches in complexity and abstraction- as you would hope it would, when writing about one’s academic field. The final part of the book was devoted to the family fall-out both from her pursuit of an academic career, and after a confrontation with her parents over Shaun’s abuse of her and her other sister. Members of the family distanced themselves from her, and she learns that although her mother may appear sympathetic, her loyalties will always lie with her husband. It’s almost a love letter to her family, shot through with grief.
I hope that Tara Westover becomes known for more than just this memoir. Google Scholar suggests that she is a topic for academic consideration, rather than an academic contributor herself. She is still very young and I wish that she had waited ten years before writing this memoir.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: purchased e-book