Recently I thoroughly but unexpectedly enjoyed Sea Glass by Anita Shreve. I kept reading until my eyes grew tired, and then read just a few pages – or chapters – more. I highly recommend it as a pleasurable but substantial under-a-cozy-blanket read.
My enjoyment of Sea Glass began with its historical fiction genre – and a twofer at that. I added to my understanding of the 1929 stock market crash and also learned about labor unrest, strikes, poor working conditions, and unionization attempts at a local mill.
In Sea Glass author Shreve explored newlywed life for Honora Beecher and her unlikely friendship with an eccentric socialite. Shreve also successfully depicted the overlapping aspects of labor difficulties through the tireless efforts of a union organizer. Fascinatingly, the author expertly knit this motley cast of strangers into a group of people who cared about one another and about whom I wanted to know more.
I surprised myself, however, by even reading Sea Glass. When it comes to book choices, I admit to a certain snobbishness. I purposely avoid reading multiple novels by the same author, attempting to avoid predictably-constructed stories. Wow, was I completely off track! After a former student recommended another Shreve novel, The Pilot’s Wife, last year, I particularly enjoyed its believable plot twists supported by a bevy of interesting characters. I did not remember that the same writer authored Resistance, a well-researched Holocaust-related book I found very readable. I did read Testimony last month to alleviate the doldrums of winter. The subject of this more recent novel by Shreve was repulsive, but the characters were superbly crafted, supported by a page-turner of a plot.
Thus, I hesitated when my sister dropped off yet another Shreve book a couple of weeks ago. As I thumbed through Sea Glass, I smugly noted the author’s all-too-familiar style of advancing the plot by writing each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character. I remained skeptical until I became totally impressed by how effectively she used this technique to intertwine such a random slate of characters.
So much for my book choice arrogance – there is nothing predictable or formulaic about Sea Glass. In fact, I will probably be reading another Anita Shreve novel in the not-so-distant future!
It was a completely different experience with the book I finished a few days ago: Educated by Tara Westover. I vaguely remember hearing about this nonfiction book published in 2018, one that spent well over 100 weeks on the most prestigious bestseller lists. But when my sister mentioned the impressive accomplishments of the author – earning bachelor, master, and doctorate degrees without any formal education grades 1-12 – I decided to take a look.
There was no tucking myself under a blanket for leisurely reading with this book. Tara’s experiences exhausted me by demanding I fathom the life she has led.
Tara Westover is the youngest of seven in a strict, fundamentalist Mormon family, survivalists preparing for Y2K, the end times, and a repeat of Ruby Ridge. The father held sway over his brood by not trusting the government or modern medicine. He did not allow the younger children to attend school, instead paying lip service to the loosest of loose homeschooling situations. The mother taught herself midwifery and became an herbalist. The last four children had no birth certificates; to this day, Tara does not know the actual date of her birth.
Tara was a bright, observant child whose memories provide great detail about the dysfunction of her family, the sheer chaos and clutter of life at the foot of a mountain in Idaho. Her childhood education amounted to experiential knowledge of nature, oft-repeated principles of the Mormon founding fathers, emergency bags always packed in the event of escape from government officials, and a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir from which she discovered her vocal music talent.
Following the example of an older brother with college aspirations, at seventeen Tara decided to study music at Brigham Young University. Having prepared herself for the ACT, she eventually received a high enough score to receive scholarship funds. She slowly “learned the ropes” of college life and study, once asking her West Civilization professor what the Holocaust was – just one example of the dearth of information she realized she had to rectify.
Rectify she did, graduating magna cum laude in 2008 and moving to England to study for degrees at Trinity College in Cambridge in 2009 and 2015. Her major was history – a long way from that initial Holocaust question.
Her formal educational path, however, was just part of her experience. Tara details a simultaneous search for an identity apart from her overbearing father, weak-willed mother, and random collection of siblings. Her time away from Idaho allowed her important respite from the chaotic family life to which she returned during school breaks and frequent times of emergency. She finally accepted the clean break necessary for survival.
Tara’s memoir is empowering and devastating – and most of all compelling. I kept mentally shouting at her not to return home, to accept herself as the competent, independent woman others knew her to be.
I am still thinking about Educated, introspectively and globally. I hope some of you readers will delve into Tara’s story. Perhaps a few of you will also consider what it means to be educated and, more importantly, just what your education has meant to you and your life.