Today, the Book Whisperer tackles two memoirs: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and Educated by Tara Westover. Both books recount growing up in vastly different circumstances, equally difficult circumstances and dissimilar family support. Trevor Noah, born 20 Feb 1984, and Tara Westover, born September 1986, both experienced violence and danger within the home and out.
Trevor Noah’s father Robert is of Swiss German ancestry, White, in other words; his mother is Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, of Xhosa ancestry, or Black under apartheid. Under South African laws of the time, a relationship between interracial couples was against the law. Called the Immorality Act of 1927, such relationships between Whites and Blacks could result in four or five years of prison. This law did not change until 1985, a year after Trevor Noah was born. Thus, the title for his memoir, Born A Crime, seems appropriate.
Even after the law is repealed, change does not take place overnight. Noah’s mother was still subject to harassment from many different areas. She took precautions to keep herself and Noah safe. For most of his early life, Noah had to stay inside because being found in a Black neighborhood could have resulted in his being taken away from his mother. Danger was an ever-present reality.
Like his mother, Noah learns languages which helps him in often dangerous situations. He overhears some young Zulu men observing him and saying they are going to mug him, so he begins speaking to them in Zulu. After their surprise, they accept him as one of them and do not mug him. Noah tells of other encounters with other groups; when he begins speaking their language, he is safe again.
Trevor Noah tells of his abusive step-father who eventually shoots Patricia Noah even though the two are separated. She survives the violent attack, but she is in critical condition. Trevor Noah rushes to the hospital and discovers the hospital wants to send her to the charity hospital because she has no insurance. A few months earlier, she has canceled her insurance because she reasons “I have not needed it.” Trevor Noah presses his credit card into the nurse’s hands and implores her to help his mother. The nurse tells him the cost can be astronomical, but he insists he does not care. He fears that moving her will create more problems or even cause her death.
As he tells his own story, Noah explains the various ways the South African government kept people apart and how the laws pitted groups of people against one another. Early in the book, Noah writes: “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other. Apart hate, is what it was. You separate people into groups and make them hate one another so you can run them all.”
Noah’s story is funny, sad, dangerous, and well worth reading. He gives honest accounts of his mischievousness as a boy; in fact, some of his exploits are dangerous, not simply mischievous. After spending much of his early life hidden away, Noah finds liberation when the tyrannical white rule ended. That did not mean that life became easy for him or his mother, but he was no longer in danger of being taken away from her or for her being jailed. That freedom came with other dangers when his mother married Abel who became a drunk and an abuser. Trevor Noah explains how he watched his step-father in order to stay safe from beatings.
Throughout the story, the strong relationship between mother and son shines through. Patricia Noah is a courageous, strong woman who instilled in her son those same qualities. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times describes Born a Crime as “[A] compelling new memoir . . . By turns alarming, sad and funny, [Trevor Noah’s] book provides a harrowing look, through the prism of Mr. Noah’s family, at life in South Africa under apartheid. . .. Born a Crime is not just an unnerving account of growing up in South Africa under apartheid, but a love letter to the author’s remarkable mother.”
In an interview in The Guardian, Tara Westover told the reporter “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them, and you could miss someone every day and still be glad they’re not in your life.” That pronouncement is a good way to begin a look at Educated by Tara Westover.
Westover grew up in Idaho on Buck’s Mountain; her father called the mountain “the Indian Princess.” Westover who never sat in a classroom of any kind until she was seventeen and enrolled at Brigham Young University has gone on to earn a Ph.D. from Trinity College, Cambridge.
In Educated, Westover describes growing up as the youngest child of seven in a Mormon family with her father growing more and more suspicious of the government and anyone who did not believe as he did. Canning peaches, stockpiling weapons, and pulling further and further away from society marked Westover’s growing up.
Her father recognized no dangers for himself or his family. Readers will be amazed, saddened, concerned, and fearful for the ten-year-old Tara as her father enlisted her help in his scrap metal business. He treated her as if she were an adult man, capable of handling sharp, irregular pieces of metal he loaded into the back of a truck. As Tara stood in the bed of the truck, her father dumped the first load. A sharp piece of metal pierced her leg; instinctively, she jumped up and fell out of the truck onto the ground below.
When her father saw her on the ground, her leg bleeding from the severe cut, he ripped off the sleeve of his shirt and wrapped it around her wound. Then he told her to run to the house and let your mother put her herbs onto the wound.
Westover’s father becomes more and more suspicious of others; only his first three children have birth certificates. Westover explained her father’s reasoning about the lack of birth certificates: “Dad worries that the Government will force us to go [to school] but it can’t because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or a nurse.”
Only when an older brother wanted to get a driver’s license in order to drive a truck to earn money did the father relent see the need for getting “delayed birth certificates” for the remining children. Oddly, the parents do not know exactly when their children were born. They know the year, but they remained uncertain about the day and sometimes the month. Tara was born in September, but her mother and grandmother disagreed on the exact date, so Tara finally chose a date for herself for official documents.
Tara’s mother is supposed to be home schooling the children. Her teaching methods consisted of giving them books and letting them wander off to other parts of the house. Tara told of returning to her mother with a math book in her hand and saying, “I did 50 pages of math.” Her mother responded with, “You could never go that fast in a classroom.” Little did mother know that Tara simply flipped through the pages of the book.
Very soon, all pretense of home schooling evaporated. The children helped around the house, yard, and with the father’s scrap metal business. Obviously, in such a dangerous business, people got hurt. Tara’s father always expected his wife to take care of any injuries and illnesses with her herbs and tinctures.
Mr. Westover suspended his beliefs if it meant the family could make money. For example, he pushed his wife to become a midwife even though she had no training and could have been in serious trouble if anything had ever gone wrong in a birth. Mrs. Westover had a phone installed so women could call her when they went into labor; Mr. Westover could allow that Government intervention just as he had allowed his children to get birth certificates finally if it meant they could work to earn money for the family.
Tara Westover knowing no other life believed her father and wanted to comply with his beliefs and demands. Then her brother Tyler announces he is going to college. Tara’s life started changing at that point, though the change takes place slowly and often with backward steps as well as forward ones.
Readers will wonder how the children managed to survive the dangers their father imposed because he simply did not recognize danger. He thought God would protect them. Even when brother Shawn suffered a head wound from a motorcycle accident, the father wanted Shawn brought home for the mother to care for him instead of taking him to a hospital. Tara defied her father and took Shawn to the hospital herself.
Tara defied her father in other ways, but then she would feel she had done wrong and try to be the dutiful daughter he expected. Tyler wanted Tara to go to college too, so he encouraged her to leave the family home. Because of Tyler’s advice, she did enroll at Brigham Young when she was seventeen.
Tara believes her father is bi-polar, but, of course, he has never been diagnosed. Shawn may suffer from the same disorder, or his violent tendencies may stem from several head injuries including an open head-wound from the motorcycle crash.
Westover’s Educated and Noah’s Born a Crime are both books worth reading. They show readers lives from separate continents, but each with its own dangers and rewards.
Tara Westover’s Web site provides more information on her life: https://tarawestover.com/.