This memoir was a feature in best-of lists and non-fiction bestsellers last year, and it’s been a pleasure to come to it, even if behind many others (‘others’ includes Barack Obama & Bill Gates, whose recommendations carry a decent amount of weight). The summary version is that Tara Westover grows up in a Mormon family, but one that is at the evangelical-meets-slightly-loopy end of that spectrum. The family, especially her father, distrust government so completely that they don’t register their children’s births (so Tara has no birth certificate), they don’t go to school, and they refuse to use doctors, hospitals or modern medicine.
The latter is particularly shocking, as two of Tara’s brothers suffer appalling injuries from various crashes, falls and accidents, and are left largely to luck, passers-by and some herbs. Worse is to follow when Tara’s father gets incredibly badly burned and is treated with a few drops of Rescue Remedy-lite for the shock and then days of being slathered in herbal mixes and lavender emollients. It’s fairly mind blowing stuff.
Gradually, via her more enlightened brothers and members of her family, and through encounters with the outside world, Tara begins to explore and learn of the world which exists beyond her childhood boundaries. The library, the theatre and, later, college and university prove her salvation from not just a blinkered worldview, but also from an increasingly repressive and violent home life. The final encounters with her parents, which take place in Cambridge and at different American universities, are heart-breakingly tense and deeply moving.
What lifts the memoir above similar real-life stories is simply the quality of Westover’s writing. She has an unerring eye for detail and a wonderful command of language, which makes some of the descriptive passages read as grippingly as a thriller. She weaves in the thread of education in way that feels real, honest and is only revealed gradually. It is also brilliantly structured, with the accretion of detail and incident building to an ending as exciting as any cliffhanger. To have all of those skills and characteristics tied to a story packed full of drama, incident and a literal learning curve is rare indeed. Highly recommended.