Her story of escape and discovery is almost as dramatic as the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but Tara Westover transcends sensationalism in Educated, her memoir about growing up off the grid in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho. A young woman whose idea of reading was confined to the prescriptive texts of the Bible, and who received her first taste of formal education at 17, Westover went on to earn a degree and a doctorate in history at the University of Cambridge, in England, where she still lives. For the literary world, the 31-year-old’s assured and unusual debut came out of nowhere, and sparked intense interest in Westover’s distinctive voice and original point of view. As Hilary Redmon, her editor at Penguin Random House, observes, “It’s rare to get a look at this particular culture that’s so specific and nuanced.” Plus, she says, “The idea that you can invent yourself is wonderful and appealing: Your birth is not your destiny.” Look out for Westover’s appearances next week on CBS This Morning and NPR’s Fresh Air, where she will be interviewed by Terry Gross.
I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt. The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling. Down below, the valley is peaceful, undisturbed. Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air. Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base. If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess.
The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads. The shape of that dent lasts only a moment, and is as close as anyone gets to seeing wind.
Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.
I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.
Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse. We have no school records because we’ve never set foot in a classroom. When I am nine, I will be issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth, but at this moment, according to the state of Idaho and the federal government, I do not exist.
Of course I did exist. I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood. I spent my summers bottling peaches and my winters rotating supplies. When the World of Men failed, my family would continue on, unaffected.
One night Dad called a family meeting, and we gathered around the kitchen table, because it was wide and long, and could seat all of us. We had a right to know what we were up against, he said. He was standing at the head of the table; the rest of us perched on benches, studying the thick planks of red oak.
“There’s a family not far from here,” Dad said. “They’re freedom fighters. They wouldn’t let the Government brainwash their kids in them public schools, so the Feds came after them.” Dad exhaled, long and slow. “The Feds surrounded the family’s cabin, kept them locked in there for weeks, and when a hungry child, a little boy, snuck out to go hunting, the Feds shot him dead.”
I scanned my brothers. I’d never seen fear on Luke’s face before.
“They’re still in the cabin,” Dad said. “They keep the lights off, and they crawl on the floor, away from the doors and windows. I don’t know how much food they got. Might be they’ll starve before the Feds give up.”
No one spoke. Eventually Luke, who was twelve, asked if we could help.“No,” Dad said. “Nobody can. They’re trapped in their own home. But they got their guns, you can bet that’s why the Feds ain’t charged in.” He paused to sit, folding himself onto the low bench in slow, stiff movements. He looked old to my eyes, worn out. “We can’t help them, but we can help ourselves. When the Feds come to Buck’s Peak, we’ll be ready.”
That night, Dad dragged a pile of old army bags up from the basement. He said they were our “head for the hills” bags. We spent that night packing them with supplies—herbal medicines, water purifiers, flint and steel. Dad had bought several boxes of military MREs—Meals Ready-to-Eat—and we put as many as we could fit into our packs, imagining the moment when, having fled the house and hiding ourselves in the wild plum trees near the creek, we’d eat them. Some of my brothers stowed guns in their packs but I had only a small knife, and even so my pack was as big as me by the time we’d finished. I asked Luke to hoist it onto a shelf in my closet, but Dad told me to keep it low, where I could fetch it quick, so I slept with it in my bed.
We kept on bottling peaches. I don’t remember how many days passed or how many jars we’d added to our stores before Dad told us more of the story.
“Randy Weaver’s been shot,” Dad said, his voice thin and erratic. “He left the cabin to fetch his son’s body, and the Feds shot him.” I’d never seen my father cry, but now tears were dripping in a steady stream from his nose. He didn’t wipe them, just let them spill onto his shirt. “His wife heard the shot and ran to the window, holding their baby. Then came the second shot.”
Mother was sitting with her arms folded, one hand across her chest, the other clamped over her mouth. Until that moment, some part of me had wanted the Feds to come, had craved the adventure. Now I felt real fear.
Dad never told us the end of the story. We didn’t have a TV or radio, so perhaps he never learned how it ended himself. The last thing I remember him saying about it was, “Next time, it could be us.”
From the book Educated by Tara Westover. Copyright ? 2018 by Tara Westover. Published by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.