by Becky Ford
So many great new books have been published this year to date, and, interestingly, my favorites are written by women and feature strong female protagonists. If publishing is any kind of measure, 2018 really is the Year of the Woman. Here’s my roundup:
Educated, by Tara Westover
Almost every day, someone comes into the Christ Church Bookstore and asks, “Have you read Educated?” and we nod our heads, because, yes, we have. Educated is a jaw-dropping memoir along the lines of Hillbilly Elegy, detailing 27-year-old author Tara Westover’s early life on a mountain in Idaho, growing up with her separatist Mormon family. Her father is not only the patriarch of the family, he is also its oracle. What he says isn’t law, it’s God’s law by proxy. Life on the family compound is about submission to this oft reckless, oft demanding, oft wrong, ruler of his own private spiritual fiefdom. Her stories make you gawk at the page—from maimings at the family scrap yard that would have had most people dialing 911, to multiple car accidents, to high-risk, at-home child birth. The traumatic brain injuries, third-degree burns, and bone-exposing lacerations pile up and are treated the same: with home brewed salves and tinctures. This book is many things, including an inadvertent testimonial to the natural resilience of the human body, as well as a how-to for at-home chiropractic care. Westover eventually finds her way out of the world of her parents by enrolling in college. Because Brigham Young University is welcoming to Mormon home-schoolers, she is allowed to apply with her GED scores. She eventually manages to test high enough to win a spot, which all seems rather odd given how much she struggled to teach herself trigonometry. But, forces conspire to free her from her fate: living on the family compound, working for the family business, worshiping the family God and popping out yet another generation. Her entry into “the real world” is as jarring as if she’d arrived from Mars. Her view of science, politics and history is so narrow and so focused by the lens of her father that she literally has never heard of the Holocaust. Her world bursts open and she finds herself becoming interested in the field of historiography, the study of the methods historians use to develop the academic discipline of history. A study-abroad class leads her to Cambridge and to the attention of a history don who encourages her to return for graduate work. The story’s dramatic conclusion comes when her parents track her down at Harvard where she is doing doctoral research. Her father has come to rebuke the demon of her new-found worldliness and offer her the opportunity to return to the clan. She plucks up as much courage as she can muster and says no. This is a shattering event, rendering her essentially banished. Educated is a very moving story of choosing your own life in the face of the one your family has chosen for you, knowing full well that it will forever block the doors of home.
The Great Alone, by Kristin Hannah
It’s 1974, Vietnam Vets are coming home shattered, and Ernt Albright is no exception. Hope arrives not a minute too soon in the form of an inheritance: 40 acres on an Alaskan peninsula left to him by a buddy he lost back in the jungle. Ernt’s yet-to-be-recognized PTSD has made it hard for him to hold down a job and has drawn him deeper into the bottle, and he sees this land as a chance at a new life on the unsullied edge of America—a place he thinks of as free of serial killers and Watergate. This, of course is a fantasy because nothing can kill more mercilessly than an Alaskan winter, and Washington D.C., has nothing on frontier politics. “Think of it,” Ernt tells his long-suffering wife, Cora, and his 13-year-old-daughter, Leni. “A house that’s ours. That we own. In a place where we can be self-sufficient, grow our vegetables, hunt our meat, and be free.” Yeah, right. The first part of the book is a story of extreme homesteading by a trio of novices in a tightly knit community of seasoned off-the-gridders. They amateurishly muddle through their first winter like they are being hazed by Vikings, but soon enough Ernt’s intrepid demons find their tiny cabin. Who knew that six-hour days locked in a frozen hellscape, warding off marauding packs of wolves where “no one can hear you scream,” could bring out the worst in an already fragile guy?
The book is told from the point of view of Leni, a bookish teen with latent Nanook tendencies who becomes the hopeful heart of the story. When an unlikely romance blooms between Leni and Matthew, literally the only other teen in town, we begin rooting for the Albrights to make it, if only for Leni to have her star-crossed romance. But The Great Alone doesn’t work like that. It’s a cuticle-biting, rollercoaster ride of compulsive page-turning. If the setting and characters weren’t so good—like the delightfully irascible Large Marge and troubled teen-dream Matthew—there was definitely a point (two actually) where the book was so outrageous I would have snapped it shut. But, wanting to know how it ends is a powerful drive, and even though The Great Alone spent all 448 pages screaming fiction, I really, really enjoyed the ride.
The Female Persuasion, by Meg Wolitzer
At first blush, The Female Persuasion might seem like a novel engineered to become the poster child of the #MeToo movement, but we would be naive to think that books get written and published that nimbly. In a very awkward interview about the book with Christiane Amanpour, Meg Wolitzer tried her best to thread the needle of striking zeitgeist pay dirt and the broader intentions of fiction. Amanpour wasn’t buying it, but thankfully the book is only fractionally related to #MeToo. There is a moment in the book when a frat boy gets too grabby, and our protagonist, Greer Kadetsky, fights back with a silkscreen-based campaign to publicly shame him after the campus authorities fail to boot him out. She and her pal, Zee, do the next best thing: they wear their creep-shaming t-shirts to see second-wave feminist icon Faith Frank speak at an assembly. That night, our nubile-feminists glimpse the future, a future furthering the work of Faith. Greer eventually gets her wish and nabs a job working for Faith’s new venture, Loci, a combination empowerment event host and women-in-crisis granting organization. But The Female Persuasion is so much more than a book about feminism and its subsequent generations. It’s much more a book about coming of age, the turbulence of young love, female loyalty and the unpredictability of a family crisis. Its characters are touching, empathetic and believable, the plot lines are thoughtfully twisting, and the outcomes reveal the arcing nature of human transformation. The strength of this book lies in the questions it asks: how do children survive the best and worst intentions of their parents, how does young love mature, how does ambition motivate, how do friendships endure betrayal and how do families deal with shattering trauma? This is a book about people much more than about politics, and yet it beautifully uses one of the most urgent issues of our time to tell its story. Read this book because it is real and it is timely, not because of the hashtag.