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.

At every step of the way, even though you know she overcomes what appear to be insurmountable obstacles, you wonder how. How does she escape the small, tortured world cut off from almost all outside input? How does she test into Brigham Young University at age 16? How does she earn a fellowship to Oxford? There is a simple, almost visceral pleasure as the story pulls us forward, even or especially knowing the end. The book reads like a modern fairy tale: the threatened child moves from sinister woods, full of threat, into an open world, with light and freedom, and hope.

It is an excellent tale, all the more so because it is true. Equally stunning, however, is what we do not hear, and this absence is palpable throughout. There is barely a whiff of judgment. Even recounting brutal events, and she does not spare the details, the book is devoid of rage or condemnation. The tone behind the telling reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy, works suffused with grace. Similarly, in Educated, we experience what feels to me like mercy. “Evil has vivid speech. Goodness bites its tongue,” says Toni Morrison. Goodness as mercy makes the book fairly luminescent and that, in addition to the story, is perhaps part of its almost universal appeal.

We experience this mercy most clearly in the final story of the book. Tara’s brother, Luke, was badly burned in an accident. She wonders whether her father helped Luke stagger home, down a hill, or left him to crawl home alone, barely coherent with pain. She does not remember her father’s presence; she remembers her brother abandoned, and muses that this would be consistent with who she believes her father to be. Luke remembers differently; he remembers his father’s help.

And then she says this: “We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.” Notably, she repeats it a few paragraphs later, almost at the close of the book: “We are all more complicated than the roles we are assigned in stories.” Then she allows for the possibility that her father helped Luke, that her father was a person who was not solely defined by her experience of him, that he was, perhaps, more than the character in her memoir. So she closes by telling the other story, not the one she remembers, but a more generous retelling, “Of a summer day, a fire, the scent of charred flesh, and a father helping his son down the mountain.”

It is a beautiful ending, rich with judgment forgone, seeing her father, who hurt her deeply, through a lens of humility, tinged with hope. What I hear in the story is this: we do not have access to the full truth about others; our sight is always limited, clouded by self-interest, pettiness and, perhaps most importantly, lack of imagination. I am reminded of Jesus’ admonition, really a plea it seems, that “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Perhaps offering mercy – at the least, softening our condemnation, recognizing our fallibility – will save our own souls from becoming hard, brittle things, consumed with self-righteousness and rage, and therefore unable to accept mercy when it is offered to us, like cracked, parched ground, too dry to absorb much needed water. And who among us does not, in the end, need some bit of mercy to see us through.

7 thoughts on “Tara Westover and the Quality of Mercy

  1. Steve, cousin Sue here. I love your blog. Not sure you should kill the kittens, but it never hurts to try I suppose. I am a fan on Eric Metaxis “Martin Luther”. I also liked Wm. Manchester’s “A World Lit by Fire.” Yes, there is a medieval bent. Keep it comin sweetpea.

    1. No where in scripture do I find that we are given the authority to judge are fellow brothers and sisters. Pretty apparent that God intends to reserve that authority. I have to admit that it has separated me from friends and even family. Worse, it tends to separate me from my creator. I know it comes from our present political environment and the serious divide that has developed in our nation. It is certain that I cannot throw the first stone and must come to the realization that my right to judge does not trump the authority that God reserves for himself. The author brings me to a need for personal reflection. Thanks for the post!

    2. Hey Sue. Always good to hear from you and thanks for your kind words. I haven’t read the Martin Luther bio, though I did read his bio on Bonhoeffer, which was pretty good, but not as good as a more recent one call “A Strange Glory.” And I love Manchester; I’ll check out A World Lit by Fire. Hope you’re well and staying sane in this weird time ….

  2. Beautifully stated, Stephen. You were the one who recommended that I read Westover’s book. Thank you for that, and thank you for this insightful blog.

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