I am far from the first critic to recommend Tara Westover’s astounding memoir, “Educated,” but if its comet tail of glowing reviews has not yet convinced you, let me see what I can do. Westover was born sometime in September, 1986—no birth certificate was issued—on a remote mountain in Idaho, the seventh child of Mormon survivalist parents who subscribed to a paranoid patchwork of beliefs well outside the mandates of their religion. The government was always about to invade; the End of Days was always at hand. Westover’s mother worked as a midwife and an herbal healer. Her father, who claimed prophetic powers, owned a scrap yard, where his children labored without the benefit of protective equipment. (Westover recounts accidents so hideous, and so frequent, that it’s a wonder she lived to tell her tale at all.) Mainstream medicine was mistrusted, as were schools, which meant that Westover’s determination to leave home and get a formal education—the choice that drives her book, and changed her life—amounted to a rebellion against her parents’ world.
This story, remarkable as it is, might be merely another entry in the subgenre of extreme American life, were it not for the uncommon perceptiveness of the person telling it. Westover examines her childhood with unsparing clarity, and, more startlingly, with curiosity and love, even for those who have seriously failed or wronged her. In part, this is a book about being a stranger in a strange land; Westover, adrift at university, can’t help but miss her mountain home. But her deeper subject is memory. Westover is careful to note the discrepancies between her own recollections and those of her relatives. (The ones who still speak to her, anyway. Her parents cut her off long ago.) “Part of me will always believe that my father’s words ought to be my own,” she writes. If her book is an act of defiance, a way to set the record of her own life straight, it’s also an attempt to understand, even to respect, those whom she had to break away from in order to get free.