Monday, January 29, 2018

Educated. Tara Westover

Educated by Tara Westover is an unforgettable memoir, joining the ranks of Glass Castle, Liar’s Club, and Wild. I couldn’t put it down and, days later, am still thinking about it. Westover has a novelist’s eye for detail and description, especially about her childhood. There’s no excessive storytelling here. Every anecdote has a purpose and leads to a powerful ending. The push and pull she feels with her family is visceral, and my heart aches for what she went through to get her diplomas.

As a child, Westover doesn’t go to school because her survivalist father believes it’s government propaganda. Instead, she’s educated in her father’s junkyard scrapping metal and in her mother’s kitchen concocting herbal remedies that substitute for healthcare. Everything she knows of the world is filtered through their paranoid, misogynistic religious beliefs. It’s a tough childhood made worse by her brother Shawn’s physical and emotional abuse. Her parents refuse to believe the abuse and make Tara question her own memories and beliefs.

Despite the hardships, Tara maintains a spark of independence. When another brother, Tyler, returns home from college, he tells her, “There’s a world out there, Tara. And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.” Inspired, she teaches herself enough math and grammar to do well on the ACT and gets into BYU.

Tara’s extreme childhood leaves her ill prepared for the world beyond the mountain. Her fish-out-of-water experiences in college are both humorous and heartbreaking. She gains confidence over time, works really hard, and graduates from BYU, then goes on to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge. 

She tries to maintain family ties throughout her education, but the further she gets, the harder it becomes. Her parents accept Tara going to school, but they can’t handle her gaining a different perspective on their lives and questioning what they hold as true. Ultimately, they make her choose: repent and return to the mountain or be cast out of the family. 

Despite her unusual story, Westover hits on universal experiences: feeling like an imposter, being torn between family and one’s own desires, the frustration of dealing with gaslighting, and learning to see the world with new eyes. Her path teaches us a lot about resilience and tenacity, and finding your truth in a confusing, sometimes hostile, world.

No matter what Westover does in the future, I’m glad she’s told her coming-of-age story. The memoir genre is richer for it. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Homegoing. Yaa Gyasi

A fire sweeps through the beginning of Homegoing, set by Maame, an Asante slave who had just given birth to her Fante master’s daughter, Effia. Maame escapes in the chaos, leaving Effia behind, and reaches an Asante village where she bears another daughter, Esi. 

The novel follows the descendants of her two daughters (in alternating chapters), generation by generation, from the 1770s to today. Both sides deal with incredible hardships due to the slave trade, which, like Maame’s fire, devours the Gold Coast of Africa. 

Effia marries an English slave trader and lives at the Cape Coast Castle in what is now Ghana. At the same time, Esi is captured during a raid and brought to the same castle as a slave bound for America. Effia’s family line deals with the effects of human trafficking and colonization on the African continent, while Esi’s descendants endure slavery and the American history that follows the Civil War. 

It’s an astonishing amount of history and number of characters in 300 pages, but Gyasi manages it by making the novel a series of short stories. Each chapter stands on its own, but taken as a whole offer a heartbreaking look at how the past leads to the present and how trauma reverberates from generation to generation. 

The stories set in Africa seem richer to me, both in setting and characters. They are perhaps the ones closest to Gyasi’s own heart. It could also be because American history is better known, and the stories seem designed to hit all the major points in a somewhat stereotypical way: slavery, chain gangs, Jim Crow, Harlem jazz clubs, drugs, deadbeat parents, etc.  Despite that, Gyasi does a great job portraying time and place. It was always difficult to leave characters behind and move on to the next story, but before long, I was immersed in the new world.

In a lecture on the idea that "History Is Storytelling" Yaw, a descendant of Essia, tells his students, "When you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too." Gyasi has achieved this in Homegoing. It's difficult to believe this is her first novel. I can't wait to read what she publishes next.


The Cape Coast Castle is, unfortunately, a real place. Its museum website provides pictures and information:

Time has a wonderful article about Gyasi and the origin of the novel: