Educated Tara Westover (2018)
Heartland Sarah Smarsh (2018)
These two memoirs have many similarities: a woman grows up in an impoverished rural area of the United States, with limited or fragmented education, then eventually escapes that environment to make a successful life. This summary doesn’t reveal the stark differences between Tara Westover’s Educated and Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland. Westover was raised in Idaho by radical Mormon survivalist parents who didn’t allow her to attend school or receive medical treatment. Smarsh grew up in Kansas, on farms and in small towns, with a nominally Catholic extended family that moved frequently, pulling her in and out of schools. I found both memoirs riveting.
In Educated, Westover explains that she was born in September 1986, though no one is sure which day because she was born at home and did not have her birth recorded. She received virtually no education before the age of seventeen, not even nominal homeschooling, though she did learn how to read from the few religious books in the house. She clearly cherished the natural beauty that surrounded her in childhood: “There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of domination. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquility born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence.” (27)
Her father—an anti-government, conspiracy-theory fundamentalist—was particularly abusive in his insistence that his children start working in his scrap yard at a young age, performing highly dangerous tasks without any safety precautions. Many physical injuries resulted, though Westover doesn’t assign blame for these injuries. One brother of Westover’s also tormented her physically, while her parents turned a blind eye.
Westover’s restraint in holding her family accountable is truly amazing. She goes so far as to provide footnotes, giving particulars of possible alternate descriptions of brutal scenes that she describes from her memories. Perhaps because the first sections of the memoir are so disturbing, the later sections (in which Westover goes to Brigham Young University and eventually to Cambridge University for a PhD) seem much less vivid, almost flat. Another lack I felt in Educated was explanation of the specific role of the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) Church in her family. She’s very respectful of her parents’ beliefs, but readers don’t get too many examples of how their extreme views contrast with more mainstream Mormon beliefs. For example, most Mormons are assigned to a bishop, a lay person they can go to for counseling and other assistance. Where was this structure in the lives of the Westover family? Westover does write, “As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same . . . I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known.” (159)
While Westover does not preach about the political and religious views that shaped her childhood, Smarsh observes no such restrictions. The subtitle for Heartland summarizes its message: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. A few quotations illustrate the lessons that Smarsh takes from her peripatetic upbringing:
“For the women in my family and their daughters, the constant moving was about staying safe from violent men and finding new ways to pay the bills. Leaving sad places behind, they seized on the promise of new ones. But they knew well enough that tomorrow’s promise would end up yesterday’s sadness.” (183)
“In 1979, Reagan had built his first presidential campaign around shaming poor, unwed teenage girls the same year that my poor, unwed teenage mother became pregnant with me. Maybe that’s why she would be damned if she’d go on welfare even when she qualified those years after her and my dad’s divorce. Society’s contempt for the poor becomes the poor person’s contempt for herself.” (132)
“In a country where personal value is supposed to create wealth, it is easy for a poor person to feel himself a bad one. Many of the people who raised me believed themselves to be bad. I know because they often treated me like I was bad. I greatest fortune of my life is that I knew they were wrong.” (282)
Like Westover, Smarsh was able to break away from rural poverty and go to college, which launched her on a career. In Heartland, she takes the unusual approach of addressing her entire memoir to an imaginary daughter named August. (Smarsh has no children.) The nonexistent August comes into the story at odd junctures, addressed as “you.” I found this technique jarring and ineffective. In addition, Smarsh’s frequent chronological leaps between decades, sometimes decades before her birth, and her references to a large cast of family members confused me.
Why have both these books soared to the top of the charts, with Educated appearing on many lists of “best books of 2018”? I’m guessing that, despite some narrative flaws in both of the memoirs, readers are fascinated by the descriptions of poverty. (Face it, people currently living in poverty are not likely to be reading these memoirs.) The scenes of violence and child neglect in both books may have caused readers to keep turning the pages to see what horrors came next. There’s also the lure of the “up by your own bootstraps” myth that persists in American culture, overlooking the role of helpful teachers, for example, or of sheer chance in upward social mobility. I do not in any way want to discredit the extraordinary educational and professional achievements of Westover and Smarsh. Through incredible determination and hard work, they freed themselves from the tough situations in which they were raised. Both also avoided early motherhood, which traps many women in a lifetime of hardship.
My concern is that the reading public may draw the conclusion that, since Westover and Smarsh could rise from poverty, anyone can. That was an implicit conclusion of JD Vance in his 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, which I’ve also reviewed. Vance, who grew up poor in Appalachia and got himself through Yale Law School, blamed the explosive tempers and laziness of his fellow hillbillies for their economic status. Smarsh’s memoir offers more nuanced explanations, plus expositions about income inequality in the United States. Poverty is not as significant a theme in Educated, since Westover’s Idaho family eventually found financial success in selling homemade alternative medicines. Instead Westover offers a warning about the dangers of political and social paranoia, including millennialism.
Should you read these memoirs? Yes. They are important pieces for anyone seeking to understand the social and cultural milieu of the United States in these early decades of the twenty-first century.