Audiobook Review: Educated by Tara Westover

Title: Educated: A Memoir
Author: Tara Westover
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: February 20, 2018
Print length: 334 pages
Audio length: 12 hours, 10 minutes
Genre: Memoir
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.

Educated was all the rage in 2018 when it was released, and for the longest time, I didn’t think I’d be interested. A story about someone going to college? Okay… And then I heard that there was a lot of abuse described, and I thought, who needs it?

Well, I’m so glad I finally gave this book a chance!

Educated is a powerful, startling story — and so strange that you probably would find it too far-fetched if it were presented as fiction. In Educated, Tara Westover takes us through the painful, turbulent years of her upbringing in an isolationist, survivalist, fundamentalist family, and then shows how she found a way out, through education and the support of those who believed in her.

Tara and her siblings were nominally home-schooled, but in reality, they were simply unschooled. Her father’s radical beliefs included the notion that public schools were tools of an evil government that wanted to brainwash children, all part of a conspiracy by the Illuminati.

The medical establishment was seen as just as evil, full of poisons and deceit. Tara’s mother believed that even one dose of antibiotics could poison a person’s system for life, and that only her special tinctures and herbal remedies, along with faith healing, could actually purify the body.

Meanwhile, Tara from early childhood worked in the family junkyard alongside her brothers, exposed to horrifyingly dangerous working conditions, forced by her father to use machinery that could easily have left her maimed or dead.

I was constantly shocked by this book, and by what Tara and her siblings lived through. It almost doesn’t make sense that they all survived — through multiple accidents, including two instances of family members being severely burned and several occasions of head injuries — the family steadfastly refused to go to hospitals or see doctors, instead relying on Tara’s mother’s ability to heal at home. I mean, really, the fact that they didn’t all die of tetanus or infections is pretty incredible.

Tara lives through years of abuse at the hands of her volatile older brother, and these sections are particularly hard to read/listen to. She’s called a whore repeatedly, physically punished, and made to feel that she has to play along and not act as if anything serious has happened in order to retain her parents’ love.

Eventually, Tara enrolls at Brigham Young University, never having attended a single day of school before then. Her journey through higher education is fascinating, particularly as she describes waking up to how much she absolutely didn’t know about the world or life away from her family’s mountain in Idaho. (One small example: She was very confused in a freshman history class until she finally figured out that Europe was a continent, not a country.)

The fact that Tara Westover not only graduated college, but continued her education through graduate school, finally earning a Ph.D. at Cambridge seems nothing short of miraculous. Of the seven siblings in her family, three earned doctorates — and the others never graduated from high school.

Educated is an incredibly immersive and engaging book, even though it’s also quite difficult to take, particularly hearing about the ongoing emotional and physical trauma Tara suffered, as well as the continuing psychological torment inflicted by her fundamentalist parents in their determined denial of her reports of abuse.

I listened to the audiobook, and found it powerful and moving. Narrator Julia Whelan conveys so much through her delivery, and made the story feel personal and urgent.

Educated is highly recommended. My husband read it right before I did, and I’m so glad — I can’t imagine reading this book and having no one to talk about it with! This book is completely engrossing, often painful, but ultimately hopeful and uplifting too. Don’t miss it.

Audiobook Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

unbrokenI just finished listening to the audiobook of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, and it blew me away. I haven’t been this mesmerized by any book — much less a non-fiction book — in a long time.

In this true story, we follow the amazing life of Louis Zamperini – childhood troublemaker, Olympic runner, WWII bombadier, and POW camp survivor. Louis’s story is so incredible that if it were fiction, I’d have complained, “Come on. How much can one person go through? This is beyond belief.”

Louis’s war-era ordeal began when his B-24 bomber crashed during a search flight for a missing plane in the Pacific. Louis then spent 47 days adrift on a life raft with no food or rations except what he and his companions could somehow catch or collect. Rescue finally came from a Japanese ship, and Louis then spent the next two years in a series of Japanese POW camps, suffering horrible brutality and inhumane, degrading conditions.

And yet, this remarkable man survived, spirit intact. He managed to hang on through one long period of deprivation and physical hardship after another, maintaining his hope and courage, supported by memories of his family’s love as well as the friendship of the other prisoners by his side.

I am so glad that I finally read (heard) this book. The narration is no-frills, but quite good. I was afraid that a non-fiction audiobook would be too dry to hold my interest, since my attention does tend to wander quite easily when I listen to books. No worries needed, in the case of Unbroken. I was as fascinated by this book as I’ve ever been by any suspense novel, and found myself both breathless with anticipation and moved to tears at times.

With the movie release scheduled for Christmas day, Unbroken is getting a renewed burst of media coverage — although as far as I can tell, it’s been on the the bestseller list continuously since it was published. (According to the New York Times, it’s been on the list for 181 weeks!). If you’re thinking of seeing the movie but haven’t read the book, I’d say read it first. I loved all the little details of Louis’s life, the quotes from letters, diaries, and newspaper articles, the interviews with family members and friends, and the historical context in which his story takes place.

Unbroken is a rich and moving story, and I just can’t recommend it highly enough. Whether in print or via audio, it should not be missed.


The details:

Title: Unbroken
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: First published 2010
Length: 406 pages
Genre: Non-fiction/History
Source: Purchased

Audiobook info:
Narrated by Edward Herrmann
Length: 14 hours