Posts Tagged ‘Educated’

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.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. 1976. Knopf, 1977.

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

I wrote my first research paper in seventh grade. All of us in Mr. Lord’s English class were required to select a subject of our choice, perhaps the subject had to be a historical figure. Whatever the case, I chose Albert Einstein. I remember sitting at the small, drop-front desk in my bedroom, printing sentence after sentence on three-by-five index cards. Mr. Lord had told us in class that we should limit each card to one fact. One of my most vivid memories of that project is the sight of my large, uneven letters spilling over onto the back of the cards. What I construed as one fact wouldn’t fit on one side.

I was probably as unclear about what constituted a single fact as I was about the goal of the assignment itself. I knew that I was conducting research on a scientific genius, but what was my writing supposed to do?

In the process of writing too many words on my index cards, I came across this detail that stopped me in my tracks: When Einstein was a young child, he was perceived as slow-witted. It seemed preposterous that anyone could believe that the theoretical physicist who developed the theory of relativity was stupid; however, I was also aware of the discrepancy between appearance and reality. I didn’t think that I was the same person that others saw when they looked at me. I imagined, as perhaps all adolescents do, that I would never be truly understood, just as I would never truly understand what I was supposed to write about Albert Einstein.

A little more than ten years later, I was walking across the main quad at Hollins College when Professor Dillard stopped me and told me that my paper on The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis was one of the best analyses he’d ever read by a student. Stunned and pleased, I thanked him, thinking of how the process of writing that essay had felt different to me, as if something that I needed to achieve in a piece of academic writing had slowly come into focus. I was a graduate student in creative writing then, so most of my writing for my courses was fiction. Yet the years of studying literature and criticism as an undergraduate had led me to an understanding that somehow only surfaced when I wrote that essay for Professor Dillard.

My next breakthrough came about four years later, when the process of writing became more than the act of fulfilling an assignment for a Ph.D. seminar. I was reading studies of contemporary Southern writing and sensed that something was missing. That something was my own analysis:

In The Southern Writer and the Postmodern World, Fred Hobson tags Bobbie Ann Mason “not so much a New South as a No South writer” (81), limiting his discussion of Mason’s work to In Country’s Samantha Hughes. . . . What Hobson refers to in Mason’s characters as a “relative lack of southern self-consciousness” (6), though, is not evident in her other work. (Meekins 147)

As I wrote, I was witnessing for the first time how I could develop scholarship of my own by placing myself in conversation with other scholars, such as Fred Hobson.

Now as I revisit research writing with my students, I am reminded of why the study of imaginative literature, Southern or not, continues to appeal to me twenty-five years after I wrote that paper. As I read in our textbook that the purpose of humanities is “to explore and analyze aspects of the human experience” (Bullock et al. 307), I think of how the ways that writers continue to retell our stories is a source of never-ending fascination for me. I hope that in the process of reflecting on their own research, my students find their own sources of never-ending fascination, too—or at least begin to see their research as more than a course requirement. When they encounter unfamiliar words, I hope they’ll keep reading, as Tara Westover did. In her memoir, Educated, she writes of learning to study by mimicking her brother Tyler. In her words, “[t]he skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand” (62). In retrospect, I realize that’s what I was doing forty years ago when I sat at my drop-front desk writing too many words on my note cards. Only now I understand.

Works Cited

Bullock, Richard et al. Chapter 24: “Reading Across Fields of Study.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 5th ed. Norton, 2019. pp. 291-93.

Hobson, Fred. The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World. University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Meekins, Beth. “Lost in the Laughing Place: Notes on the Postmodern Postsouthern Condition.” The Black Warrior Review, vol. 20, no. 2, 1994. pp. 146-59.*

Westover, Tara. Educated. Random, 2018.

*The essay “Lost in the Laughing Place” was published five years before I married and three years before I began using my first name rather my nickname, hence the byline Beth Meekins rather than Jane Lucas.