Tara Westover, age seven, lives in a fundamentalist Mormon household in Buck’s Peak, Idaho. Her father Gene's deep adherence to religious doctrine, suspicion of the government, and fear of economic collapse keep the family isolated, so Tara and her siblings are homeschooled by their mother Faye. To keep the family off-grid as they prepare for the seemingly imminent doomsday, Gene has even prevented the children from getting birth certificates. “According to the state of Idaho and the federal government," Tara says, "I do not exist."
Chapter 1: Choose the Good
Gene reads the Bible aloud to the family one evening, fixating on a vaguely-written passage from Isaiah. The excerpt says butter and honey are representative of good and evil but doesn't clarify which is which. Intent on following the word of the bible to the letter, Gene informs the family that he will "inquire of the Lord."
The next day, Gene purges the family home of all dairy products. His mother-in-law—their neighbor on the mountain, known throughout the narrative as "Grandma-down-the-hill"—scoffs at his behavior. In protest, she begins stocking extra milk in her own fridge for the Westover children. Skeptical of Gene and Faye's rules, Grandma-down-the-hill comes up with a plan to sneak Tara to school. Tara is intrigued, but she’s also afraid to participate, and she decides to stay home instead.
When the family learns of the Ruby Ridge massacre—a botched FBI siege on another survivalist household in nearby Naples, Idaho—Gene feels that his paranoia is validated, and the Westovers begin preparing to defend themselves.
Chapter 2: The Midwife
As part of the family's initiative to be as self-reliant as possible, Faye Westover begins to train as a midwife. She's anxious about the role: Midwifery is not illegal in the state, but it isunregulated, and those practicing assume legal risk in the event that something goes wrong. Few women are willing to take on the role because the risk is so high, and Faye soon becomes the only midwife in the region.
As Faye becomes more confident as a midwife, Tara notices a change in her mother. "She was a grown woman with seven children," she notes, "but this was the first time in her life that she was, without question or caveat, the one in charge." When Tara's older brother Luke, age fifteen, asks Faye if he can get a birth certificate for the first time, she elects to get them for all the children, despite Gene's moratorium. Because nobody seems to know Tara’s real birthday, hers is especially challenging to acquire.
Chapter 3: Cream Shoes
Tara reflects on the stark differences between her mother's upbringing and her own. Faye was raised in the nearby town, in a little yellow house with a white picket fence. Her father was a mailman, and her mother—called "Grandma-over-in-town" by the Westovers—was a seamstress. She dressed Faye in beautifully tailored clothes, and their life had an air of "intense order, normalcy, and unassailable respectability." These efforts, Tara posits, were to give Faye what Grandma-over-in-town thought was the most valuable gift one could give a child: "the gift of coming from a good family."
Marrying Gene—"a severe young man with jet-black hair and an appetite for unconventionality"—was a substantial deviation from Faye's lifestyle, and her family opposed the marriage. This tension is still evident as Faye raises her own children. Gene avoids Faye's family whenever possible, and the Westover children don't know their maternal relatives well. As she reflects on these complex relationships from the present day, Tara notes that Grandma-over-in-town died three years prior to the writing of the memoir...
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and that she regrets not knowing her better.
Chapter 4: Apache Women
When Gene suffers seasonal depression, the Westovers travel to Arizona to spend some time with his parents at their winter home. It's Tara's first time away from home, and she finds herself deeply homesick for the "Indian Princess," the mountain that towers over the family compound.
On the way back to Buck's Peak, Tara's brother Tyler falls asleep at the wheel and the family car hits two utility poles in rapid succession. Faye sustains the worst injury, but the institution-averse Gene elects to take her home instead of to the hospital. As she recovers, it's clear that the effects of the accident are severe. She becomes forgetful and begins mixing up her children’s names. Tyler, guilt-stricken, struggles to cope with the aftermath.
Chapter 5: Honest Dirt
A month after the accident, Tyler stuns the family with an announcement: he's leaving for college. A livid Gene explains to Tara that college is "extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around." But Tyler is undeterred, and Tara is heartbroken by her brother's departure. Whereas the rest of the family is in constant chaos, Tyler is calm, thoughtful, patient, and organized, and thus he models a different way of life for his little sister, teaching her about music and diligently poring over borrowed study materials. "He was waltzing while the rest of us hopped a jig," Tara remembers. "He was deaf to the raucous music of our lives, and we were deaf to the serene polyphony of his."
For the rest of the Westover children, education is an afterthought. To Gene, there is no goal more important than collective preparation for the end times, and studying is a recreation for when the daily work is complete. Faye's aspirations are higher, but only slightly: "All that really matters," she tells Tara, "is that you kids learn to read."
One afternoon that summer, Tara is visiting Grandma-over-in-town and uses the bathroom in her house. Her grandmother asks if she washed her hands, and a perplexed Tara says no, they weren't dirty. When Gene arrives to pick up Tara later, Grandma-over-in-town asks him whether he teaches his children to wash after they use the restroom. "I teach them not to piss on their hands," he tells her angrily.