I have just finished Educated, Tara Westover's remarkable memoir about growing up in a Mormon survivalist family in Idaho and the shock of discovering the strange new world beyond. It is the kind of book that can be read in many different ways, but here are a couple that resonated with me.
First, the writing style. Although Tara relates some horrifying experiences, including repeated episodes of physical abuse at the hands of an older brother, she refrains from explicitly passing judgment. As she explained in an interview with Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic, she prefers "to stay in the moment" rather than "step outside and say what this means." This restraint has the paradoxical effect of making her writing more powerful and the message (however you choose to understand it) even more compelling. Instead of telling her readers what to think, she allows them to experience the horror that she endured and draw their own conclusions.
It's a form of story-telling that I have tried to adopt in my own books, particularly the latest, King Richard (due out in May) which describes the Watergate scandal through the eyes of Richard Nixon and his senior advisors. Rather than condemn Nixon's criminal abuses of power, I attempt to give readers a worm's eye view of events inside the White House at the height of the scandal. I show how one bad decision leads inexorably to another, as the president attempts without success to escape from a spider web of lies and miscalculations of his own making. Like Tara, I strive to anchor the reader in the moment, curious to know what will happen next. Explicit moral judgments on the part of the author would only detract from the dramatic nature of the story.
A non-fiction book or a novel can contain within it many different messages, even contradictory ones. One of my favorite novels growing up was A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin, about a love affair between a married British foreign correspondent and a Chinese doctor. It was later turned into a movie, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (Note the British and American spellings!). Either way, it's a beautiful phrase that applies not just to love affairs--but to life itself, and therefore to literature. People remember the same events differently. There are several points in Educated where Tara acknowledges that her memory of certain traumatic events is at odds with the memories of other family members. Rather than insisting on the correctness of her version, she gives the reader several versions to choose from. It is a reminder that life does not proceed along straight lines, leading to neat conclusions. Instead it is messy and many-splendored, and the lessons we draw from life are messy and many-splendored as well.
How you interpret a story often depends on the times in which you live. Educated came out at a time of growing political and cultural divisions in America--between the highly educated and the less educated, urban and rural, blue states and red states, people who have gained from the technological revolution and those who have lost out. Tara Westover is both a symbol of this division and the possibility of transcending it. She was essentially self-taught until the age of seventeen but, thanks to her own efforts and some inspiring teachers, went on to receive advanced degrees from top universities. She uses a term associated with the Salem witch trials--the "breaking of charity"--to describe a country in which half the population has lost nearly all connection with the other half. To travel from New York to rural Idaho is like traveling to a different country, with separate media universes, lifestyles, and belief systems.
For my part, I am haunted by my experiences in Bosnia after the fratricidal war, investigating the massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb army in July 1995. I frequently made the five-mile drive from Srebrenica (still predominantly Muslim) and Bratunac (largely Serb). Crossing the ethnic divide to conduct interviews on the rival sides was jarring. People who had grown up with each other, attended the same schools, and frequently inter-married now viewed each other as enemies. Each group had its own myths and truths, its own version of history, its own victims. There was little recognition, let alone empathy, for the suffering of the other side. It was a nightmare vision of where America could be headed--unless we find a way to bridge the cultural and economic gulfs that Tara Westover captures so well in Educated.
Michael Dobbs is the author of seven books, including the best-selling One Minute to Midnight. His latest book, King Richard, is about Nixon and Watergate.