Top critical review
Critical Thinking Alert!
December 22, 2018
Yes, I believe the abuse and also the gaslighting from her parents and family members. But a lot of her story rang false to me.
1. Tara Westover grew up in the 1990s (not the 1890s) and much of this memoir covers that time period. Although her family had a television, telephone and computer, she describes her family in this TV-folksy way as if took place around the time of "Little House on the Prairie." Her father's dialogue alone: He refers to school as "book learning" and at one point asks to know "about them classes." She calls her mother "Mother" yet in a quoted email toward the end of the book she calls her "Mom," which is a lot more likely for someone born in 1986 (not 1886.) Her father says Tara is getting "uppity" when she decides she wants some of that thar book learnin'.
2. Tara is playing the lead in the town's musicals as a young teen and taking dance and piano classes yet she is so naive about clothes and has so few that we are treated to the following scene, a la Laura Ingalls, when "Mother" takes her to Aunt Angie's house to get a dress:
"Angie... laid out an armful of dresses, each so fine, with such intricate lace patterns and delicately tied bows, that at first I was afraid to touch them.... "You should take this one," Angie said, passing me a navy dress with white braided cords arranged across the bodice. I took the dress, along with another made of red velvet collared with white lace, and Mother and I drove home."
What, no butter churn?
Remember, Tara is not isolated "off the grid." She's in town playing the LEAD in "Annie" as a kid, around other kids who presumably weren't so "isolated." Yet at 15 she's saying she thought Europe was a continent and didn't know where France was. Then again she's careful to say her father only watched "The Honeymooners" reruns on TV -- even though her father, who is in his mid to late 50s, was not even born when "The Honeymooners" originally played on TV.
Tara Westover grew up in the same era as Vanilla Ice, "Beverly Hills 90210," "Saved by the Bell" and MC Hammer but apparently none of those other "book learning" kids in town mentioned this. Pretty much the only pop culture references in the book involve Ralph and Alice Kramden.
3. Harrowing, near-fatal accidents appear in what to seem to be every other chapter. The injured family members hardly ever go to the hospital, emerging from unconsciousness, brain injuries, bloody limbs, or burns and more fairly unscathed a few months later each time.
Her mother is left apparently brain damaged after one terrible car accident. She never sees a doctor despite weeks of migraines and a lot of time spent in the darkened basement. She recovers, of course, enough to run a lucrative, essential oils business, Butterfly Quality Essential Oils, that employs many in the Westover family. This business is rarely mentioned in the book and instead it seems as if the Westover made their living working in "the junkyard."
Abusive brother Shawn is in two horrendous accidents - he falls in the junkyard, is knocked unconscious and yet "lived through the night." Later he has a motorcycle accident and Tara can see his brain through a hole in his forehead. "His brain, I can see it!" she cries on the phone to Dad. Shawn winds up in the hospital but the hole in his brain? No biggie. He recovers.
Luke's arm is gashed through to the bone while working one of the family's junkyard machines. (Tara also gets a gash in her leg from a farm injury. There is a lot of bloody "gashes" in this book. The family German shepherd is apparently chopped to death by Shawn.) Another time Luke also gets badly burned in a fire and all they do is stick his leg in a garbage pail to cool it down. He recovers without a doctor of course.
Dad is horribly burned, or so Tara says, in yet another accident involving a fuel tank on their property which leaves his "insides charred." He "still had a forehead a nose... but below his nose, nothing was where it should be. Red, mangled, sagging, it looked like a plastic drama mask that had been held to close to a candle."
Tara sees her mother take a butter knife to "pry my father's ears from his skull." He never sees a doctor for these life-threatening burns but recovers well enough to return to work. He is also pictured on his wife's Facebook page in a 2009 photo (taken after the burn accident) and his face looks normal.
There's yet another bad car accident, in which Dad drives so fast their van crashes into the snowdrifts, upside down. Tara winds up unconscious but doesn't go to the hospital. Her mother calls in an energy healer. Tara recovers.
4. When she's about 15, uneducated, mainly unschooled Tara decides she wants to take the ACT. She drives (by herself) into town to buy an ACT study guide. She scans the first page and doesn't understand the symbols. "What's this?" she asks Mother. "Math," says Mother.
Yet within a few months, Tara goes from teaching herself the multiplication tables to mastering trigonometry - enough to ace the ACT test. The accidents that befall the Westover family and the abuse Tara suffers at the hands of her brother Shawn are described in depth; her "Education" is not.
She goes from a 15-year-old who can't identify math symbols to acceptance at Brigham Young University and then - poof - acceptance for study abroad at Cambridge at 17 where her smitten professor says her essay is the best he's ever read. From there it's on to Harvard with a lot of traveling to London, Paris, Rome and even a quick trip to the Middle Eastern desert.
Favorite quote from the book? She is at BYU in her dorm room, studying with roommates.
"France, I now understood, was a part of Europe."