Tara Westover and the Quality of Mercy

The quality of mercy is not strain’d
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven . . . Merchant of Venice

I never seem to get book recommendations right. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Lila, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen – there are good, thoughtful people who don’t love these books, Idaho gal among them; it baffles me. Of course, this bafflement goes both ways. I told a friend recently that the Harry Potter series never really grabbed me. “Oh, I’m not sure we can be friends,” she replied. So, I’m generally tentative about suggesting a “must read.” But, well, onward into the breach and all that: Educated by Tara Westover is one of those books that all good human beings will like; please give it a whirl.

Here’s the story and a bit of a spoiler, that isn’t really a spoiler because, of course, she wrote a best-selling memoir: Tara is raised by fundamentalist, survivalist parents and Educated traces her journey from barely home-schooled to a PhD from Oxford. The prose is spare and the story told gently, even as she remembers horrific events. She remembers a cruelly abusive brother, a father who kept the family spinning wildly inward, always smaller and defensive, against imagined conspiracies. She tells of a mother who showed moments of strength and courage, but who finally succumbs to the world of her father’s creation – a dark, fearful existence, carved out of the hills and scrapyards of Idaho’s high desert hills.

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Holy Saturday and The Long Defeat

Two scenes come to mind on this slow, quiet Holy Saturday. 

The first is from Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book by Tracy Kidder that traces Dr. Paul Farmer and his extraordinary work to address public health inequities in Haiti. Farmer and Kidder are on a long hike through the mountains of Haiti to visit a sick child. Kidder is trying to decide how to ask a delicate question about a recent decision. Farmer’s non-profit, Partners in Health (PIH), had flown John, a very ill Haitian boy, back to Boston at considerable expense and with slim hope of healing. John wasn’t healed, and Kidder wondered aloud to Farmer how he could justify the extravagant expense, given all the other needs competing for PIH’s limited resources. 

Kidder writes: What about the twenty thousand dollars that PIH had spent on the Medivac flight to get him out of Haiti? Not long after John died, a PIH-er, a relatively new one, said to me that she couldn’t help thinking of all the things they could have done with the twenty thousand dollars.

Farmer’s response is long and thoughtful and in the end he says simply:

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