2018 Gift Ideas

Friends often ask me for book recommendations for kids and gifts, especially at this time of year. It’s maybe my favorite thing to be asked, honestly. But I want to have a place to send folks for ideas, so this is it. If you have readers on your list, here are my Gift Idea Lists for 2018

Best of the Lists (tl;dr version)

In short form, the top TWO from each of my “major” age ranges; just title, author and target audience.

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (MG)
  • Skellig by David Almond (MG)
  • A Heart In a Body in the World by Deb Caletti (YA)
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (YA)
  • Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly (Adult)
  • Exit West by Moshin Hamid

Gift Idea Lists

The lists consist of books I’ve read this year (for the most part), though not all of them were written this year (not even most of them, really). Each entry includes the title of the book or series with a one sentence “review.” For more in-depth reviews, you can click on the title on my Goodreads “Read” Page.

Picture Books & Early Readers

  • Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo -Best friends roller skating and eating pancakes
  • The Anna Hibiscus series by Atinuke – Captivating, Ramona-ish character, lives in Nigeria
  • What Do They Do With All That Poo? by Jane Kurtz – Nonfiction guaranteed to fascinate kids
  •  Kate, Who Tamed the Wind by Liz Garton Scanlon – Heartwarming friendship between a young girl and her older neighbor 

Middle Grade (8-12 years old)

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill – Simply magic. Fans of Rene Girard pay special attention.
  • Skellig by David Almond – Roald Dahl meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate – The one and only animal voice you’ll ever need.
  • The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson – Middle school kids solve a compelling mystery while exhuming the history of race in the US.

Between MG and YA (13)

A friend asked me for some recommendations for her daughter, who is on the cusp of YA, but maybe not ready for as much maturity as she thinks she is. Here’s my take on what might work, though I’m skipping reviews here for books mentioned elsewhere in the Lists.

  • When  You Reach Me or Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead – Puzzles and friendship and the seeds of adolescence.
  • Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
  • Spinning by Tillie Walden or That One Summer by Jillian Tamaki (graphic novels)
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
  • One by Sarah Crossan or Love and Leftovers by Sarah Tregay – Teens facing challenging issues and not being entirely lovable in the process (novels-in-verse)

Young Adult (14+)

  • A Heart In a Body in the World by Deb Caletti – “I have to do something,” Annabelle says. Then she runs from Seattle to Washington D.C.
  • The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – Simply the best coming of age story, ever.
  • Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert – Grief, art, intersectionality, and family secrets.
  • Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour – A set designer discovers she can’t design people’s lives, especially not for the girl she’s falling in love with.
  • What If It’s Us? by Becky Albertelli and Adam Silvera – The fluffy, sweet M/M romance we’ve all been waiting for.
  • Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan – Surprise! The author really played you. And you TOTALLY fell for it. Now you have heart eyes.

Children’s Literature Classics

  • Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume – The Judy Blume you skipped when you were a kid because it didn’t have any sex  (YA, but appropriate for MG readers).
  • The Twenty One Balloons by William Pene Du Bois (upper elementary) – A 1948 Newbery award-winner that might have inspired the movie Up.

Graphic Novels

  • The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang – A girl with ambition and a genderqueer prince in a book with big heart (grade school/middle school).
  • Real Friends by Shannon Hale – Will make you remember exactly what social life in elementary school was actually like, or will help kids navigate it themselves (grade school).
  • The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui – An intergenerational Vietnamese family memoir (high school & adult).
  • Spinning by Tillie Walden – Coming of age and coming out in competitive ice skating (MG-YA).
  • That One Summer by Jillian Tamaki – Coming of age on summer vacation (MG-YA/adult).

Surviving Evangelicalism

  • Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free by Linda Kay Klein – The title says it all (adult, nonfiction).
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson – Torturous youth group romances, revisited (YA/adult graphic novel).
  • As the Crow Flies by Melanie Gillman – Woke kids forced to go camping with unsophisticated adults who frame their way of thinking as “faith” (YA graphic novel).
  • Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens – Youth group friendships rendered sweetly, with an undercurrent of tension around gender identity (YA).

Adult

  • Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly – Quick reads, flawless writing, and complete hilarity
  • An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green – A speculative, page-turning romp.
  • Educated by Tara Westover – The most fascinating misery lit of the year.
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – You won’t like her much in the beginning but then you’ll love her fiercely and miss her when she’s gone. Fans of therapy and A Man Called Ove, pay special attention.
  • Exit West by Moshin Hamid – Hamid has a gift for making his characters us, and this book is as important as it gets.

Romance

  • How the Dukes Stole Christmas by Tessa Dare, Sarah MacLean, Sophie Jordan and Joanna Shupe – Four “dukes,” an intergenerational biscuit recipe and some really great romance writers.
  • Born to be Wilde by Eloisa James – The best romance of 2018, hands down, a heroine so alive and real she’ll make you cry.
  • The Other Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn – Brand new from everyone’s favorite romance writer!

Audiobooks

  • I Crawl Through It by A.S. King*
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

*Note I Crawl Through It is the most important book I’ve read in my graduate program, and I listened to it. It is NOT for everyone. It’s surreal. And I mean that literally: It’s about being a girl and school and self and grief and loss and invisible helicopters and assault and places with no departures. You can read my extended review here.

Happy Birthday to Me: How Writing a Book Helped Me Find Myself

Screen Shot 2018-12-03 at 6.31.01 AM

Happy birthday to…me. I’m bi. I’m coming out publicly today as an opportunity to fundraise for The Trevor Project a group that focuses on crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth.

Every $1 we give funds 1 minute of time to phone and chat lines. I’m starting my day with a donation and this post.

For those who are cautious about where giving dollars go, the Trevor Project has earned 4 stars from Charity Navigator every year since 2011.

But wait a minute. Did you just say you are bi? 

Yes. Yes I did. You can read more about that, if you like…

The TL;DR Version

  • I’m new to naming myself this way, and how I got here is complicated. It includes religious experiences, a high school love, and writing a book. The longer version is below.
  • I’m not interested in claiming space that doesn’t belong to me (I’m married! And monogamous! I look cis het!), but I also know that quietness about this isn’t neutral or unobtrusive. It promotes bi invisibility.
  • I have spent the last several years making apologies and reparations for my participation in InterVarsity so that today could be a celebration.

Religion

I come from an Irish Catholic family. I “converted” to Protestantism in seventh grade and was part of an active evangelical youth group of one kind or another for most of my young adulthood. In college, I was a part of a Christian campus ministry, and when I graduated, I worked as a staff person for that organization for several years. It never occurred to me in that time to interrogate my sexuality—it simply wasn’t on my radar. I dismissed every feeling or experience I had that didn’t fit into the heterosexual box–I didn’t deny it, understand. I dismissed it. It didn’t exist. I was attracted to guys. Full stop.

And I knew the party line. In campus ministry, both as a student and as a staff, and later as a member of a solidly “evangelical” church, I was part of coding and enforcing it. Not only did we exclude LGBTQIA narratives from the story of faith, we actively rewrote those narratives as “mislead” by our culture. We believed same sex attraction was a disease or a disturbance in need of “healing” [this is the stuff I’ve been apologizing and making reparations for].

Then my husband and I got an infertility diagnosis.

In the evangelical world, one of the arguments about marriage equality is that marriage between people of the same sex is wrong because it cannot be “fruitful,” meaning they cannot biologically reproduce.

Neither could we.

Suddenly, I was the marginalized one in church. I was the one who needed to pray enough or believe enough or jump through enough hoops to be “cured.” Suddenly, I was the one people wanted to fix, since everyone else who had struggled with infertility had babies—see?

Then, almost twelve years ago, we adopted our eldest son. Holding him in the first few days of his life was the kind of miracle that nothing in my life had prepared me for. I turned to my husband and said, “If he’s gay, and if I have to choose between him and Jesus, I’m going to choose him.”

Luckily, that’s not the choice. Not at all. With therapy and love and other friends who’ve survived that particular brand of evangelicalism, I have slowly started to reclaim myself and my place in the world.

An Editor & My High School Crush

Then, several years ago, someone I love deeply came out as trans. She had her gender reassigned legally, and has since become an all-around smash-the-patriarchy badass (love to you, sister).

If she had been any other person in my life, her announcement and her transition would have been just another coming out story to celebrate. But she was the person I’d spent the better part of ten years in love with–in love-love-love-love-love with.

And she was a woman.

I wanted to understand her journey, so I took to the page. I wrote an entire novel about a character being in love with a person who transitions, and I ended it with the two of them as friends. Tidy. Tropey. Heteronormative.

Blind.

An editor asked me to revise the novel. She said the stakes weren’t high enough, the emotional center was out of whack. She wanted the protagonist out of her head in love with the character in transition.

I took the book apart and saw that I’d spent the entire novel protecting myself—through that protagonist—and as a result, the emotional center of the book was exactly what the editor had claimed: Out. Of. Whack.

I went back and revised. I wrote instead the story of a girl who figures out that she’s bi when the person she loves begins a gender transition. I wrote a kissing scene between the two of them that was so hot I still fan myself when I read it.

That gave me pause.

As I began more and more to put myself in my protagonist’s shoes, I started to realize that I’d been in love with a person in transition, too. Of course, I’d loved her when she was living as a guy [that’s her preferred way of describing it].

But just as much as I’d been in love with that him, I knew I’d also been in love with her. It was mystical. It made no sense. But I was sure of it.

The Earthquake Storyquake

Through the gift of “narrative transportation,” I got a new look at my own life. To myself, I posed the question, “Does that mean I’m bi?”

I felt this earth-shaking yes trembling out of me, one I immediately followed it with an intellectual no. How could I be? I’m married to a man. I’ve been attracted to the male of the species for a very long time.

But the yes was hard to ignore.

The longer I sat with it, the more I recognized I’ve been attracted to the female of the species for a very long time too.

I did all the secret things a person can do to figure myself out: I wrote in my journal. I went to the internet for shitty quizzes and a lot of self-doubt. I revisited my life, starting from childhood—all the confusing experiences and intense feelings. The physical longings. The “weird” relationships. The names people called me. The women I’d crushed on or fallen for or just plain wanted. I remembered “practice” kisses and “friendly” snuggling and hand holding and kissing.

I remembered the distaste and suspicion on my mother’s face whenever I got “too close” to a particular “kind” of girl. When I cut my hair. When I double-pierced my ears. She was always poking around, trying to find out what it “meant,” clearly believing it meant something, while my evangelicalism had made me oblivious to even the idea that it could mean anything.

On this side of my own story, it all seems hopelessly naïve. Willfully stupid. Maybe even deeply, darkly terrified. My friends tell me it’s “internalized homophobia,” and I’m coming around to seeing it that way. But on the other side—back before all of this happened—it simply never occurred to me. I needed my character’s story to unlock my own.

Now What?

After I sat with these feelings for a few months, I took my thoughts out into the open. I wasn’t calling myself bi—I was just saying, “Hey, you know, I’ve been attracted to both men and women for a long time.” It was no surprise to my husband. He started taking it for granted before I did. It was no surprise to my sister, either. She said I should “start flying the flag” ASAP.

But…what flag? Do I have a flag? I am happily married to the best person in the galaxy. Universe. Whatever. Monogamy and fidelity are the paths I’ve chosen, and they’re  fruitful paths for me. My life isn’t going to change in any meaningful way, no matter what I say about myself.

A few years ago, I talked with one straight friend and one gay friend about these questions. I started by saying I couldn’t be bi because I’d never had sex with a woman.

Right, they said.

Plus, everyone’s earliest kissing experiences are with the same sex, I said, right?

Wait, they said. What?

And everyone gets called “lesbo” at sleepovers, I said. Right?

No.

But surely everyone has those desperate crushes on slightly older girls in middle school and high school, I said. Right?

Um, No.

So not everyone has those weirdly exclusive female friendships, then? I said. The kind full of hand holding and snuggling and kissing?

No. They don’t.  

It was in sharing some of those experiences with my friends that I figured out they weren’t “everyone” experiences. They were my experiences. They were bisexual experiences. The longer I sat with my own story, the more memories and images came to the surface.

I continue to experience them unfurling.

Renovations

In the last five years or so, I’ve made a LOT of apologies–both formal and informal. I cannot undo the damage I did when I was part of the evangelical enforcements. But I can make sure I do good now.  I’ve begun annually donating to the LGBTQIA organization at my alma mater. I’ve become an outspoken ally to my LGBTQIA students.

Now I’m coming out. Becoming visible as a bi woman is for me, of course. But it’s also for the other girls like me out there, who can’t imagine themselves as who they are because they’ve never seen anyone like them. Girls who think that the alternative to being themselves is lying or death.

I’m keeping on with the therapy and the love and the sticking close to friends who get it.

…and meanwhile, I continue to write stories. Fiction, not memoir—no matter how much one particular plot point may (now) sound like my life. But in my stories, I’m centering girls. I’m centering bi and questioning narrators. I’m centering first loves and uncertainty and seeing the world with empathy and joy.

At this point in my life, it’s the best I can do; it’s the story I have to tell.

 

—-

[NB] “Narrative Transportation” is a term I learned from colleague and classmate Sherrie Lorance (@sherrielorance) in her lecture, “I’ll Take You There: Crafting Stories That Move Readers to a Place of Real-World Change” given at Vermont College of Fine Arts, January 2018.

 

In Which a Book Enmagicks Me

 

Every year the citizens of the protectorate sacrifice their youngest baby to the “witch,” who they believe lives in the forest. The problem is they’ve got the wrong witch. Every year, the witch who does live in the forest, Xan, travels to the sycamore grove to rescue a baby she believes has been abandoned. She places that baby with a new family in the free cities. This goes on and on until one year, Xan falls in love with the baby she rescues, accidentally “enmagicks” her, and then decides to raise her as her granddaughter. She names the baby Luna. Glerk the swamp monster and Fyrian the tiny dragon welcome Luna to their chosen family, and they all build a life together in their treehouse-swamp-forest home.

But the girl’s magic is too much for Xan to manage, so she binds it until Luna turns 13 years old. By the time that magic starts to emerge, however, the people of the protectorate have begun to rise up against the sacrificial system, Luna’s mother–who has never stopped searching for her–has found her, the local volcano is threatening to erupt, and everyone’s favorite woodcarver is on a quest to kill the witch.

But then Which witch? becomes a terribly important question.

In the opening few chapters of the book, I was intrigued enough to keep going, but I had NO IDEA what the book was about. In part, this was the rotating third-person close POV. Which character mattered seemed to shift quite a bit depending on point of view–and even though I was trying to follow the girl who drank the moon (Luna), the author often took us away from her to her hometown, the Protectorate. In addition, like the early chapters in many of the Harry Potter books, the adult points-of-view seemed as plentiful as the child points-of-view. The enormous cast, the seemingly endless voices, the four or five distinct storylines in and out of the early chapters — all of it tested my resolve to keep going.

It’s a Newbery! I’d tell myself.

But I don’t know what’s going on! I’d answer myself.

She wrote that kick ass essay on revision, I’d remind myself.

Oh, okay, I’d say. And read some more.

Then, on page 125, [spoiler in white ink; select to reveal –>] Antain is at the Tower when Ethyne is leaving the sisterhood, and the entire book clicked into place. I knew exactly what would happen and why we had been wandering from person to person for over a hundred pages. Suddenly, I was just as enmagicked as Luna. I wouldn’t have stopped reading the book if you had paid me to do it.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve read it, now, and I’ve been meditating on it and thinking about it extensively. Some thoughts in no particular order:

1. The author, Kelly Barnhill, is intimately familiar with the work of René Girard, or I’ll eat my hat. The novel is basically a textbook for Girard’s scapegoating theory. Except ten times better than a textbook, obviously.

2. As an adoptive mother, I think that the story says a lot about adoption–I don’t know if this is intentional. But it is built in a way that honors all the sides of the adoptive triad: first families, new families, and adoptees. There is a fierceness in a mother’s search for her child, there are dreams woven into her grief, there are often threads of magic in which child lands with which family, and children get to create their own narrative no matter how any of the parents feel about it.

3. The message about adults not always telling the truth, or not telling the whole truth–and the children who see through their lies–resonates with the best and most classic of children’s literature. What I love about how Barnhill handled this element is that there are evil people who hide the truth because they want to hold on to power (like Elder Gherland), but there are also mostly-good people who hide the truth out of love and fear (like Xan). In classic books, the latter is often missing or replaced by adults who hide the truth because they doubt children’s capacity for understanding. To portray both the adult and the child with sovereignty, love, and dignity gives everyone complexity in all the right ways. None of the lying is exonerated–not for power or for love–but in this book, Luna knows the difference.

4. The power of women across generations–and particularly their political power against lies once they unite–is a powerful element to the story that surprised and delighted me.  But there is also an image of what happens when that power is turned inward and feasts on the suffering of other women or is used to elevate oneself at the expense of ones sisters. As a result, the stronger together theme is reinforced on both sides.

5. The parallels between Luna’s magic/power emerging and adolescence is both intentional (I suspect) and quite evocative. In Luna’s story, to come of age is not just to come into responsibility and difficulty and grief, but to come into power. She reflects multiple times on the changes she’s experiencing, on the way she feels like a different person, a new girl, a stranger to herself and and yet not-a-stranger to herself. Dang.

6. On craft, the prose is crystal clear and perfect. It reads aloud beautifully. The magical system passes all of the Holly Black tests. The characters are finely and intricately drawn, with the kind of signal details that give them away (Fyrian’s singing, the madwoman’s paper birds, Gherland’s robes, etc.), and tiny gestures to the net of relationships that extend beyond what we see on the page. Plus, every character has their own recognizable voice; they never blur into one another. And the setting–it is imaginative and reflects the realities of Barnhill’s invented world with astonishing clarity.

This book is a masterpiece.

Trail Maintenance

In her excellent essay “On Wildness, Cracked Worlds, Monsters, and the Odd Nature of the Short Story,” Newbery medalist Kelly Barnhill discusses the advice given to her by one of her mentors in the Park Service, Vic Stanculescu. She writes:

I haven’t seen Vic in years, but I think of him often. He was a good teacher. “Here’s my theory on trail maintenance,” he said to us over and over again. “You take the worst stretch of trail, and you turn it into the best.”

She reminds us near the end of the essay that what’s good for trail maintenance is also good for revision.

When I encountered this stretch of trail yesterday afternoon on a hike with my family, I thought of  that advice.

IMG_3524

I’ve been revising lately, and this is an apt metaphor for too many of those revisions. Too often, I haven’t made the worst bits of the manuscript into the best, I’ve just repaired that little section and kept the bad bits further apart.

It’s time to do some real trail maintenance.

What If It’s Us

FAAD5497-4F83-413D-92F3-9BCD035AE0E5

Sweet, charming love story between city mouse and country mouse, featuring souped up nerd life—heavy on the Hamilton and Harry and Wattpad allusions.

Warning: Spoilers ahead. A spoiler free version here.

I never felt like EVERYTHING was at stake, which is unusual for a YA romance, but reflects the emotional maturity I see in my students realistically. Even the moments of tension, like when they miss their Hamilton tix because Ben is late, don’t have the eternal woe vibe.

Part of this savvy comes (ironically) from Arthur’s character. He’s so earnest and wonderful and loyal that no matter how much Ben messes up, he is willing to make it better. The other reason for the relative calm is that Ben starts to actively manage some of Arthur’s wide-eyed enthusiasm (i.e. he wants this love experience to be a good one for Arthur). That paternalism only felt natural some of the time. Other times it felt—well— paternalistic.

But the planned breakup that preserves their friendship and the epilogue at the end hit all the right notes and landed the book with the most perfect “happily for now” I’ve ever read in a YA novel.

Some other thoughts in no particular order:

1. Like DEAR RACHEL MADDOW from earlier this year, the book features one teen who isn’t great at school, and treats him realistically—that is, as an intelligent person with wide-ranging interests. This move is so important. So. Important.

2. The physical intimacy is managed really well until near the end when it becomes “fade to sheets.” This is a disappointing move in a genre which could really use its heavy hitters (like Albertelli and Silvera) to go there.

3. Those six boxes of condoms are so freighted with symbolic meaning and so utterly true to Arthur’s personality that I giggled and then thought “Awwww,” every time they were mentioned.

In sum: a strong duet that will please fans and new readers alike. As a teacher, I’m also thrilled to have another book to recommend in the “happy gay YA romance” category, of which there are lamentably few.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

56ED918E-BEF9-4FFB-B8EE-6CC2E3D9D123

This book is incredibly compelling, and I gobbled it up in a day –reading through my lunch hour and well into my evening.

I read EW’s review calling it a “disappointment,” and I can’t help thinking I read a different book than they did. This book is “good, old-fashioned novel of ideas,” as Hank’s brother once described Fahrenheit 451. It’s about fame, shame, and the internet. The characters aren’t fully developed characters, EW. Of course they’re not. Neither are the kids who visit Narnia or the pigs in Animal Farm.

Plus, Hank has been thinking and talking about these issues for so long that the philosophical underpinnings of the novel have a lot of weight–or at least the power of long thought underneath them. In fact, for a while as I read, I kept exclaiming “This is so Hank!” every few chapters. But then I remembered that the “Hank” I know is just as carefully constructed as the “April May” that April and Andy construct in their hotel room. ‘S all right. I still like him. And I liked April May too, no matter how other reviewers might consider her “unlikeable.”

However, the writing isn’t great. The first chapter basically consists of the narrator saying, “Hi, I’m April. This is what I’m like. This is my friend Andy. This is what he is like.” While it does get better after that [never fear], it never becomes gorgeous prose. Once I got past that first chapter, though, I didn’t actually mind the writing all that much. The story was page-turning-great, exciting without being scary, high stakes without grinding down my heart.

…and I just HAD to know what was going to happen next.

Lucky for me, the ending left me with just a little bit of that feeling. As someone who actually had to wait for the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Harry Potter books to come out, that’s a feeling I kind of like.

Do yourself a favor and read this rollicking romp of a book. It’s worth it just for the wonderful feeling of sinking into a story where you just want to keep going.

Educated by Tara Westover

EDUCATED

For me, as I am in the planning stages of writing a story (fiction) based on my experience in a religious, cult-like group during college, I found this book riveting.

On a craft level, Westover makes two very interesting choices. First, she structures each chapter as a short story with its own narrative arc and a strong fermata. In interviews, she describes doing this intentionally—knowing nothing about constructing narrative and having read very little fiction, she gave herself a crash course in it by reading short stories. It was a pragmatic move because she knew she could read many of them in the same time it would take to read only a few novels. But the result is rather too many fermatas that left the ending a little anticlimactic. However, that’s a minor quibble with a book I otherwise devoured.

Second, she is completely unafraid of herself and her past. To write with this level of honesty and awareness about my own past, even fictionalized, would require a lot of self-comfort. I’d have to put my hand over my heart a hundred times every day and say “You did the best you could with how you understood the world,” and I still don’t know if I’d make it through. But Westover is fearless, systematically interrogating herself, her motives, her worldview. The Atlantic review described her as “ tenaciously patient with her ignorance,” and I both agree with that assessment and am in awe of it.

Finally, as a memoirist and a professional historian, Westover chose to use her own memories as well as those of other people. Several times in the course of her book, she relates her own story and then says, “Tyler remembers it differently…” or “My brothers say it happened another way…” and includes their accounts. Time and time again, she interrogates her memories with precision, while still honoring the story she lived, a life she’s learned to understand through years of counseling.

Interestingly, it’s as if her family didn’t read the same book that I did; their reviews of this book mystify me. They say she’s made it all up. They say it’s wildly exaggerated and she’s wrong about most things. Given the narrative we do have from Westover, the denial isn’t the surprising part; the denial is more like the proof in the pudding. What is surprising is this:

(1)On the one hand, they skip over her explanations about variances in family stories and memories. The inclusion of that careful work, along with emails and diaries, all described in-depth, makes their denials sound kind of silly.

(2) But on the other hand, they also relate alternate narratives that would be easy to corroborate with other evidence, and they do not provide that evidence. For example, Westover’s assertion that her father’s burns are a major disfigurement is at odds with her mother’s online (and commercial) account of his recovery with just some normal scarring, yet there are no clear “after” pictures of the man available anywhere.

If my essential oil concoctions had worked that level of miracle, I’d plaster the internet with before and after photos. And these are not people with no media savvy! They run a business that employs nearly everyone in their family and lots of people in their community, a business worth millions of dollars with an extensive online presence.

Something does not add up, and it’s not Tara Westover’s account.

Personal footnote: The story she tells is believable to me as a former evangelical. The physical mangling of bodies isn’t something I’ve ever known—I was never that poor, never worked manual labor, and I’ve never been in a physically abusive situation. But I’ve known these people, eaten at their dining room tables, considered them a little fringe, but good people who love God.

What is recognizable to me is the way her family talks about what’s happening, how they interpret the events around them. For example, when her dad comes to confront her and call her back to the fold, he says “Remember when Luke burned his leg?…That was the Lord’s plan. It was a curriculum. For your mother. So she would be ready for what would happen to me” (303). The notion of suffering as a curriculum to prepare us for the future is painfully familiar and widespread in devout evangelical communities. Flashes of recognition like this example happen throughout the novel so that as I listened to the audio book, I thought, “I’ve heard this before” again and again.

Blog at WordPress.com.