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Enjoy, laugh, disagree or simply empathize with those who lived life in THE sixties and are now rockin' life in THEIR sixties, and beyond.


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Tara Westover is proof we can rise above adversity


Tara Westover’s best-selling memoir Educated is a success story similar to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle—and I loved them all. Stories by people who rise above disadvantaged circumstances fascinate me and are an inspiration to those who struggle. When we look at several children raised by the same parents in the same environment, we wonder what makes some seek higher meaning while others remain satisfied with the status quo.

Westover was the seventh of seven children born to devout Mormons in Idaho. Their strict devotion might not have been so much religious as just plain bizarre. While father Gene quoted the bible extensively and purported to listen only to the word of the Lord, we have to wonder whether his take on God’s word was what God intended. He was supported unquestioningly by his wife. They were intensely opposed to formal education and did not want their children corrupted by outside influences or potentially ungodly guidance in the public school system. So the children were pseudo home-schooled, which in reality meant they were taught basic reading and writing but beyond studying the Bible, they were totally ignorant.

Father Gene was convinced the day of reckoning or ‘illumination’ was imminent and kept the family a high state of alert and constant preparation. They canned home-grown fruit and vegetables, stored gasoline in a giant tank buried in the yard and salvaged whatever they could for survival. He earned a basic living by running a junkyard and doing minor construction jobs building barns and sheds in the community. He operated under the misguided assumption that the feds were out to get them and destroy their family. Westover’s mother earned money as an unqualified midwife for the local Mormon community and she had a side business making herbal medicinal potions.

The children all worked in their father’s junkyard and construction businesses incurring numerous injuries which never received proper medical attention. Westover was subjected to extreme bullying and physical abuse by an older brother while the parents failed to protect her. Both maternal and paternal grandparents, who were also Mormon did not share the family’s strict dogma and constantly tried without success to intervene on behalf of the children. Two of her older brothers escaped their toxic home environment by studying and qualifying to go to college. At the age of sixteen, Tara Westover wanted the same for herself so she spent a year self-educating and after two attempts, succeeded in passing the multiple choice entrance exams. Using money she had saved, she entered Brigham Young University and was confronted with how little she knew of the real world. Her basic life skills were abysmal. She had no conception of spelling or grammar. Even personal hygiene was something that not been practised at home growing up and her college roommates had to educate her on regular bathing, cleaning up her kitchen messes and dressing appropriately.

Tara Westover is a remarkable person with a remarkable story.

While surrounded by fellow Mormons at BYU it became obvious her father believed in a different God. “I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same.”  Westover had no conception or knowledge of geography. She didn’t know Europe was a continent or that France was a country within Europe. She’d never heard the name Margaret Thatcher, FDR or even the meaning of the word ‘Holocaust’. Her general knowledge of life outside the community she grew up in was shockingly inadequate. Despite a rocky start at college, Westover, worked extremely hard to catch up, persevered and finally excelled. As a result, she was awarded a scholarship to attend Cambridge in England where she studied before being further recommended for study at Harvard University.

Writing a memoir at the age of twenty-five may seem a bit premature but as proven and documented by author and psychologist Catherine Gildiner, many young women have lived remarkable lives in the first quarter of their lives. Westover ultimately earned a BA from Brigham Young University, a MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge and a PhD in history from Harvard University. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who was practically illiterate at sixteen and suffered significantly at the hands of her family. I’d give this story 9 out of 10.

To order a copy of Educated by Tara Westover from Amazon, click here.

To order a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance from Amazon, click here.

To order The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls from Amazon, click here.

To order the third book in Catherine Gildiner’s trilogy, Coming Ashore, click here.

 


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Hillbilly Elegy is a quite simply a must read


There’s a reason Hillbilly Elegy, A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance has been on the New York Times’ best seller list for several weeks. It’s an amazing book. If you enjoyed The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, you’ll love Hillbilly Elegy for the same reason. Some might consider Vance a bit young (he’s only in his mid-thirties) to be producing a memoir, but many people including Walls and Catherine Gildiner who was the author of the wonderful trilogy about her early years, have lived young lives truly worthy of sharing. Memoirs by people who have risen above challenging beginnings to succeed in life have always fascinated me and we have so much to learn from them.

J.D. Vance was born into a poor, uneducated, unstable Appalachian family surrounded by a larger community of similarly dysfunctional people. His mother was pregnant at sixteen and although his father didn’t stick around he was never completely estranged. Vance was born into a life anchored by an alcoholic and ultimately drug-addicted mother with an endless stream of boyfriends and husbands, some good but most bad, an assortment of half-siblings and dismal prospects for a better life. The only stable element in his ever-changing life was the presence of an older half-sister and his gun-toting, cussing, mean maternal grandmother who truly loved him. His grandfather, although ultimately living apart from his grandmother was equally loving and loved by Vance and provided a kind moral compass for the boy. He moved back and forth between Kentucky and Ohio depending on his evolving family situation with all its domestic strife, his ever-changing sets of siblings and even changing last names.

Many of the social problems experienced by hillbillies are attributable to their own poor choices in life.

When children are born into a community of people who are always fighting and are disinclined to hold regular jobs or even have ambitions of doing better, they grow up without incentive, without hope and without direction. Those who are lucky enough to find someone in this quagmire of humanity who can see beyond their obvious limits is truly fortunate. Vance possessed a level of intelligence that allowed him to at least finish high school despite poor grades and poor attendance in the midst of his family’s turmoil. Despite their own lack of education, his grandparents encouraged and promoted education helping him by providing a safe home when he needed it, moral direction when he strayed and were successful in regularly putting him back on track. When a cousin suggested the only way Vance would be able to get a college education which was the key to a better life, he opted to pledge four years of his life to the Marine Corps to subsidize his later college education. He ultimately parlayed this into a law degree from prestigious Yale University and through Hillbilly Elegy shares the experience of his journey with others who might benefit from what he learned along the way.

Vance’s enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps was step two in bettering his life after step one which was completing high school.

Vance discovered a world entirely different from what he had always known when he enlisted in the Marines and to a greater extent afterward when he went to university and law school. “When I joined the Marine Corps,, I did so in part because I wasn’t ready for adulthood. I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook” he said. The Marine Corps assumes zero knowledge on the part of its recruits and even accompanied him to open his first bank account. He had received no early guidance in nutrition, fitness/wellness or personal pride during his growing up years and describes himself as a cultural alien. He came to learn and understand the value of interpersonal skills and what he refers to as social capital to help smooth the way through networking. New relationships with friends and fellow students introduced him to a completely new set of social behaviours that were not aligned with his temper and hillbilly upbringing. Most people acknowledge that not all education is gained in the classroom but Vance had no experience with such everyday basics as table manners, how to dress appropriately, how to handle conflict or even how to give and receive love. Interestingly, one of his valued law school mentors at Yale was Amy Chua, author of Tiger Mom.

While he’s circumspect about suggesting solutions to the economic and social problems that are rampant in the rust belt of America, the author provides a rare glimpse into the lives of those people who live hopelessly grim and depressing lives. He knows better than most how they reached this point and why it is so self-perpetuating. Poor life choices, poor role models and social problems breed generations of people with no hope for betterment.  His observations are informed, articulately presented and blunt. What I found particularly revealing was his perspective on how entire generations of rust belt people turned against the Democratic party and put their hopes in the Republicans. Vance explains the misconceptions and clever rhetoric that guide their votes and destroys any hope of a better future. They are told “premature parenthood, drugs, incarceration . . . what separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives. Yet the message of the right is increasingly: ‘It’s not your fault that you’re a loser; it’s the government’s fault’.” Untrue and unproductive.

I can’t recommend Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance strongly enough. I learned so much reading this book and only wish the people of Kentucky and Ohio who are described in its pages would also earn from the wisdom he dispenses. I’d give it 10 out of 10.

To order a copy of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance from Amazon, click here.

To order The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls from Amazon, click here.

To order the third book in Catherine Gildiner’s trilogy, Coming Ashore, click here.

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