Nonfiction — print. Random House, 2018. 334 pgs. Purchased.
Westover’s memoir generated considerable buzz after its publication last year. Former US President Barack Obama included it in his list of favorite books for 2018, and it seemed like every single book club I considered joining in my new town had read or planned to read this book. I bought a copy figuring I’d end up reading it for a book club eventually, but bumped up to the top of my reading after friends of friends raved about the book to me.
Westover’s memoir recounts her childhood living in rural Idaho with her Latter-Day Saints (also known as Mormon), survivalist parents. Her mother and, especially, her father believe that the world will come to an end soon and, more importantly, that the United States federal government is intent on suppress their rights. The family stockpiles food and guns, refuses to visit the doctor or send their children to school, and waited nearly ten years to register Westover’s birth with the state.
The lack of formal education could have tethered Westover to her family’s property and way of life. After watching one of her six siblings leave Idaho and succeed in college, Westover taught herself enough math and grammar to pass the ACT and applied as a homeschooled student to Brigham Young University, the LDS-owned college in Utah. From there, Westover earns a spot at Harvard followed by Cambridge, two of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Westover’s quest for an education is remarkable. The only books her parents allowed her siblings and her to read were The Bible, The Book of Mormon, and the writings of LDS prophets from the nineteenth century. Her mastery of mathematics was limited to the addition and subtraction needed to work in her father’s scrap yard, and she puts in a tremendous amount of effort against her parents’ wishes to teach herself the subjects she needs to enter BYU.
Yet, the true focus of Westover’s memoir, of her education is her evolving understanding of herself, her family, and the way people respond to abuse. Westover is emotionally abused by her father and physically abused by one of her older brothers. She makes excuses for both of them throughout the memoir; her brother suffered serious head trauma while working at a construction site and her father may have undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Her formal education gives her the physical space from her family as well as the tools to informally diagnose her parents. But Westover feels the pull to go home, especially after her only sister says she’s going to talk to their parents about the abuse both of them suffered. The results are heartbreaking to read, following the cycle of hopelessness and resurrection that her memoir presents.
That cycle is what makes Westover’s memoir gripping and fascinating to read. Admittedly, I picked up the book for the voyeurism it promised. (We all know I like to read about fundamentalist religions and cults.) But the story refuses to dabble in that for long, and instead becomes testimony of forgiveness, understanding, and an individual’s evolution as they learn about the wider world.