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, almost anything by Chaim Potok or Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River – there are, weirdly, good, thoughtful, smart people who don’t love these books, Idaho gal among them. (The Lord of the Ring trilogy too; it’s a topic we’ve learned to avoid.) It baffles me. Of course, this bafflement goes both ways. I recently mentioned to friends that the Harry Potter series never really grabbed me. Apparently, the words sounded just like: “You know, I rather enjoy drowning kittens for grins,” because the reaction was incredulity and profound dismay. 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 overcome basic cultural and historical illiteracy, gaps in learning that required her to ask what the Holocaust was on the first day of class? 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 prose – 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 in the final story of the book. Her 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 alone, barely coherent with pain. She does not remember her father’s presence; she saw 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.