Education is subjective. Its definition is always changing, and as a result, there is not a solid answer to the question of what it means to be educated, or who is an “educated” person.
For many people, education is the physical act of attending a school and learning about topics like the basics of math or writing.
But for Tara Westover, being educated means being aware. She opened her eyes to her surroundings and to the vast world beyond Buck’s Peak in Idaho, aware of the person she was and the place she held in this “modern” society.
At first glance, her memoir “Educated” does not give the reader many hints about the story. The cover subtly displays a simple pencil, which serves as the common symbol used to represent scholarship. But when one takes a closer look at how the pencil is depicted, there are more graphic details such as the shape of a mountain and what appears to be a little girl standing on top of it. This appears to be a representation of the author’s background.
Surprisingly, many readers are unaware that this is Westover’s first book. In “Educated,” she compiles a collection of her memories, which became crucial moments in her life and would eventually lead to her metamorphosis as a new person. The crucial moments are interesting because of how they vary; it could be an innocent anecdote such as “The Talking Game,” which Westover and her brother Shawn played.
In the prologue of her book, Westover explains her divisive feelings when she writes, “All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley; our jagged little patch of Idaho. He never told me what to do if I left the mountain, if I crossed oceans and continents and found myself in strange terrain, where I could no longer search the horizon for the Princess. He never told me how I’d know when it was time to come home.”
Helping to set a tone to the beginning of her book, Westover questions what many people fear: uncertainty, not being able to know what is going to happen next. Throughout her memoir, she vividly recounts her childhood memories, which often collide with her current feelings. Westford is in an internal battle between missing her old life which she knew and the things that her new freedom has allowed her to experience.
Westford grew up in a devoted religious family, but the concepts of religion were different from what most people would think. Having been raised in an isolated Mormonist family, she didn’t experience a normal childhood. While other children attended school, Westford was in the junkyard collecting metal scraps with little to no protection; she ultimately put her life at risk every day. As other children were spending their free time doing a variety of extracurricular activities, Westford helped her family prepare for the end of the world by stockpiling canned peaches and creating a “survival” bag in case they needed to run and hide in the hills.
Her father strongly believed that the government was corrupting society, which caused a strong feeling of opposition to basic services such as healthcare, transportation and even having an identity, since owning a birth certificate would allow the government to track his family more easily.
Considering all the facts noted, it is obvious that Westover lived a risk-filled life, which was full of negligence and deprivation. During her childhood, her well-being was always at stake. Whether her mother took her to illegal midwifery practices or her dad forced her to work in the junkyard, Westford endured both internal and external struggles. But despite all of that, she still pursued her goal of becoming educated. In one of the chapters, she shows how determined she was.
“Every night for a month I sat in the opera house, in a chair of red velvet, and practiced the most basic operations,” Westford wrote. “How to multiply fractions, how to use a reciprocal, how to add and multiply and divide with decimals-while on the stage, characters recited their lines.”
The book is inspiring; it tells the life story of another American who lived differently. The recurring themes of devoutness, family relationships, loyalty and so on do not only represent Westford, but they also represent a large part of the population who might be experiencing the same things. Westford is a voice amidst a crowd who has only heard of stories with happy endings, and she has yet to experience one.
She brings into light a small piece of Buck’s Peak, and the things which surreptitiously happen under the sight of the mountain known as The Princess.
A number one New York Times Bestseller, “Educated” has the literal ability to hook and take the reader through Westford’s journey of change and self-awareness. The constant exploration of the importance of the concepts of family and loyalty versus prioritizing one’s goals and desires also describes how the surroundings and the environment where a person grew up can impact his or her future by setting an unwanted path for his or her life.
However, as with any writer’s first book, “Educated” can be quite bumpy. The story has some areas that need improvement to make it a smoother reading. Some parts of the memoir are hard to read because there is no solid chronological order, which might confuse some readers who are unable to keep track of all the characters and anecdotes being told.
The lack of a powerful hook in the first few chapters can create a barrier that impedes the reader from fully immersing and engaging with the story. Westover’s writing style can also be deemed as “extra” because of the descriptive language and length on the narrative, which she uses for trivial matters. Although that might not be the case for the entire book, some parts of the memoir might need to be read a few more times before actually being able to understand what’s being said.
To illustrate this point, for example, the novel “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is narrated through the use of descriptive language which focuses more on the settings and the actions of the characters to hint at symbols rather than the actual interactions that occur within the storyline.
It is not hard to believe that Westford’s purpose in writing and exposing her story to the general public was used as a form of therapy since by admitting that the values and customs that she believed were normal may have been damaging to her while growing up. Additionally, her writings also help to show the world how determined a person can be even if the odds are not necessarily in his or her favor.
At the end of the day, Westford achieved her goal of being aware and educated as she says in many of her interviews. “Education I really believe is a privilege. It cannot be allowed to putrefy into arrogance, and we always need to be attacking the bigotry and the prejudice,” she told.
Overall, “Educated” can easily spark curiosity to the public, and it serves as the typical book most people would see in the recommended section. Westford’s exciting journey illustrates a peculiar way of life that Americans thought was non-existent because of technological advances. She is also an inspiration to those who might be going through a difficult time.
Westford’s story vividly reminds the public that one’s destiny is not shaped by the environment or third-party factors; it is shaped by one’s choices and attitude. Additionally, readers can get a sense of freshness after every transition between the three parts of the story and a new perspective on what it means to belong to a family. The continuous humanistic development of the characters also allows a deeper connection between the reader and the story, thus allowing them to think rhetorically about the various themes presented in the memoir in a greater context.
Jiaqi Liu is a contributor to The Setonian. This review is part of a collaboration between The Setonian and a section of Core English I.