Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is a blockbuster by any standard. Those who read it early sensed that this story, of Westover’s evolution from growing up scantly homeschooled in a family of rural Idaho survivalists and then earning her PhD in history from Cambridge, had the elements of a classic-in-the-making. Educated was lauded by Bill Gates and President Obama, became a finalist for many literary prizes (including the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award, the LA Times Book Prize, and the PEN America Jean Stein Book Prize), and has endured for months on bestseller lists across the globe. There’s a good chance that you’ve already read it. So if you’re hankering for a memoir just as good as Educated, here are six stellar choices to read next.
If The Creek Don’t Rise: My Life Out West with the Last Black Widow of the Civil War, by Rita Williams
If you loved the way Educated took you inside a family living as though they were in a prior century, this memoir will inspire the same awe. Williams was born in Denver in the 1950s. Her father left her mother for another woman, and her mom died from carbon dioxide inhalation in a boarding house when Rita was four. Rita was given to the nearest relative, her aunt Daisy, who lived a hardscrabble, subsistence lifestyle in the mountains near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Daisy, incredibly, was the last surviving black widow of a Civil War veteran. In the early 1900’s, when she was a teenager in a family of Tennessee sharecroppers, she married a 79-year-old Civil War veteran to escape the KKK-ridden South. They came West, where Daisy eventually took Rita in, raising her in poverty, with tough love—with an emphasis on the tough. Daisy is verbally abusive and the kind of woman who reminds a child to “urinate or move your bowels” before leaving the house, but also made an arrangement to wash a private school’s floors so Rita could attend. Williams’ rise in life is perhaps even more astonishing than Westover’s—she became a writer for the Los Angeles Times, O Magazine, and the television show “Queen of the South.”
River House, by Sarahlee Lawrence
While Westover grew up on a mountain in Idaho, Sarahlee Lawrence grew up on a high desert ranch in central Oregon with her parents, 70’s back-to-the-landers who raised her to be self-sufficient. She writes of her mom, “Her philosophy on mothering was one of release: a bow that shoots an arrow into the world.” And Sarahlee left to become a world-traveling river guide. But as the book opens, she’s running a river in Peru when she’s gripped with a powerful urge to return home. She does, and sets herself the task of building a log cabin, by hand, during the frigid winter months so she can continue to make her living as a river guide in the summer. Lawrence’s tenacity and stubbornness help her as she struggles to build a life and a home she’s proud of.
Claiming Ground, by Laura Bell
If you loved the passages of Educated where Westover tenderly described the western landscape, check out Laura Bell’s arresting Claiming Ground. Bell, like Westover, considered herself the black sheep of her family. A preacher’s daughter, Bell graduated from college in Kentucky in 1977 and decided to find her own religion, pursuing her “childhood’s private world blown larger than life, with a horse, two dogs, a rifle, a wilderness.” Bell came west with her sister and began working as a sheepherder in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. Each chapter is a lyrical snapshot from her life and work as a sheepherder, ranch hand, forest ranger, and masseuse.
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The Line Becomes A River, by Francisco Cantú
Over the course of Educated, we see Westover’s eyes open and her mind expand as she learns lessons about the world that her isolated family never could have taught her. Westover also shares her struggles with mental instability as she tries to break free from them and start a new life. Cantú, too, begins The Line Becomes A River as a smart, sensitive young man, and has an awakening—and an unraveling—as he works for the U.S. Border Patrol. Cantú grew up along the border, speaking English and Spanish with his mother, who worked in National Parks. In college, he distinguishes himself as a scholar of the border, but feels his knowledge is too theoretical, and decides to learn firsthand about the situation at the border by joining the patrol, against the cautions of his mother. Searching, searing, and beautifully written, this book captures the complexities of life along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Heavy: An American Memoir, by Kiese Laymon
Tara Westover’s relationship with her parents was complicated, to say the least. Her father, whom she suspects has bipolar disorder, dominated her and subjected her to abuse. Yet Westover still loves her parents so much that breaking with them was heart-wrenching. In one of the most celebrated memoirs of recent years, Kiese Laymon likewise lays bare his fraught relationship with food, his body, and his mother, to whom he addresses the book. Laymon’s mother, an accomplished, loving, brilliant, black college professor in Jackson, Mississippi, raised him right and wrong at the same time. As Laymon pores through his past in this unflinching book that in the end casts no blame on his mother, he makes it clear that the abuse he suffered—from the beatings his mom gave him, to sexual violation by a babysitter, to his own disordered relationship with food—are the consequences of growing up in a society that acts as though poor black people are not fully human.
Mean, by Myriam Gurba
If you came away from reading Educated with a great admiration for Tara Westover’s pluck and knack for self-reinvention, here’s another indomitable memoirist to meet: Myriam Gurba. In Mean, Gurba tells the story of growing up in California in the shadow of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, the daughter of a Mexican-American mother and a Polish-American father—she calls herself a “Molack.” Gurba writes with tremendous potency and wit about how people reacted to the Mexican side of her heritage—including a hysterical chapter in which she stays at a neighbor’s house and is served a disgusting, gloppy casserole the woman describes as “Mexican” food. As a young adult, Gurba is assaulted by a stranger who then goes on to rape and kill another woman, but this memoir does not follow the standard structure of a victim’s tale. Instead, it’s a heroine’s story, an account of how Gurba became the bold, hilarious artist, poet, and writer she is today. “Art is one way to work out touch gone wrong,” Gurba writes.