What makes a book a page-turner? If it’s fiction, it’s the narrative arc. If it’s nonfiction, it’s the same arc imposed on truths that are stranger than the lies of novels. Tara Westover’s Educated is a case in point. In the chapter where she recounts performing the title role in the musical Annie, the prevailing image of the teenage Tara is not one of herself, but rather Tara as the iconic orphan, her “brown hair [dyed] cherry red” (86). By depicting herself as that fictional heroine in a chapter that ends with Y2K, Westover creates a rags-to-riches narrative in miniature, a nesting doll within the larger Cinderella story of the memoir.
At the beginning of the chapter, as Tara rehearses for Annie, the source of tension that drives the narrative is her father’s obsession with preparing for what he proclaims will be the post-Y2K chaos that will usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Gene Westover’s adherence to Y2K conspiracy theories and his distrust of doctors and public schools set Tara apart from the other teenagers in rehearsal. The Worm Creek Opera House, like the ball in Cinderella, is another world, where the words people spoke “seemed ripped from another reality” (86).
From her father’s obsession with Y2K, the source of tension in the chapter shifts to the obstacle that presents itself when Tara learns from the director that she must provide her own costumes. The old, tattered clothes that Annie wears as an orphan in Act I are a cinch to find in the Westovers’ basement, but in Act II Tara must take the stage in the beautiful dresses that Daddy Warbucks, Annie’s millionaire benefactor, buys for her. Lacking the dresses that she needs sends Tara and her mother on a search—a heroine’s quest—for suitable ones. Westover recounts that she and her mother drive one-hundred miles round-trip, scouring every second-hand store to no avail. It seems that Tara will have no gown for the ball, but her mother devises another plan as a last resort: She drives Tara to Aunt Angie’s house, where Angie loans Tara some of her daughter’s Sunday dresses. Helping Tara try on the fancy dresses, “knotting the sashes, fastening the buttons, plumping the bows” (87), Aunt Angie becomes the fairy godmother of the moment, setting Tara back on her path.
Annie isn’t the only stage role Tara plays, but it’s the only one Westover describes in her memoir; she doesn’t even mention the others by name. They remain the unnamed characters in “the next play” and “the one after that” (87). By limiting the depiction of her theatre life to Little Orphan Annie, Westover leaves readers with the image of her as the scrappy heroine whose rags-to-riches narrative parallels her own story as well as Cinderella’s. And the last pages of the chapter present another link to the girl with the glass slipper. In both stories, the heroine believes that the world will change at midnight. But in Educated Gene Westover’s delusions are the real fairy tale. After 2000 arrives without incident, Tara looks at her father watching television in the dark, noting that “[h]e seemed smaller to me than he had that morning” (91).
In Bruno Bettelheim’s classic study of fairy tales, he observes that “[i]f Cinderella is to become master of her own fate, her parents’ authority must be diminished” (257). Readers of Educated see that parental authority diminish as Tara watches her father become smaller in her eyes—as parents, both real and imagined, often do. Westover’s readers enter the terrain of Buck’s Peak knowing that the perils of an abusive brother, a paranoid, delusional father, and a three-ton pair of scissors aren’t the exaggerated obstacles of a fairy tale or comic strip. Instead they’re genuine threats in a hard-knock life that Tara only narrowly escapes. She doesn’t live happily ever after, but she does achieve an education and a sense of self—if not a sense of peace.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. 1976. Knopf, 1977.
Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.