Buck’s Peak: Why Tara Westover Escaped the Mountain

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Educated" by Tara Westover. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Where is Buck’s Peak? What was Educated author Tara Westover’s life there like?

Buck’s Peak is a remote mountain in Franklin County, Idaho and childhood home of author Tara Westover.

Growing up in Buck’s Peak, Westover experienced more than just ideological extremism. Her parents’ beliefs had real-world consequences for the children, which frequently put Tara and her siblings in grave danger. Whether it was through near-death experiences in car crashes or maimings in the junkyard where her father Gene forced his children to work, it was a constant struggle for survival on Buck’s Peak.

Growing up on Buck’s Peak

Tara Westover was one of seven children born into a family of hardline, anti-government survivalists who lived on a remote mountain in rural Idaho, Buck’s Peak. A Mormon fundamentalist, her father was an adherent (and active promoter) of an extreme ideology that welded together strands from the militia, anti-vaccination, and evangelical Christian movements.

His adherence to these views subjected his family to a number of privations.

  • Tara was born at home and didn’t see a doctor or nurse until her adulthood. 
  • She didn’t attend any school growing up, public or private.
  • She didn’t have a birth certificate, and the state of Idaho had no official record of her existence until she was issued a Delayed Certificate of Birth at the age of nine.

The Voice of God on Buck’s Peak

The family lived at the base of Buck’s Peak, a mountain in Franklin County, Idaho. Her father, Gene, had free reign to impose his beliefs on the rest of the family from this remote, isolated location, free from interference (or intervention) from the outside world.

(Shortform note: Westover has changed the names of the principal characters in the book, since they are real people, many of whom vigorously contest the version of events that she presents. As the reader, we only know these individuals by the names she assigns to them.)

Gene’s family had been living on the mountain for over 50 years, but his own siblings had long since moved away by the time Tara was born in 1986. He had a contentious relationship with his own mother, whom Tara knew as “Grandma-down-the-hill” and who lived (as her nickname would suggest) just down the hill from Tara’s immediate family. She did not share her son’s hardline beliefs and frequently clashed with him over his refusal to send his children to school

Gene was a religious fundamentalist, who believed that he could communicate directly with God and who took the text of the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon literally. He once forced the family to purge their refrigerator of dairy products and brought home 50 gallons of honey in his truck. He had done this because he had read in the Book of Isaiah, “Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” He believed that God was telling him dairy was evil and honey was good.

Herbal Remedies at Buck’s Peak

Gene believed that the “Medical Establishment” injected brainwashing drugs into people’s bodies. As a result, he refused to let the children go to the doctor, even when they sustained grievous injuries working in his junkyard or when they got debilitatingly sick.

This was another outgrowth of his religious fundamentalism. Gene insisted that God had provided all the medicine that anyone would ever need in the form of natural herbs and oils which could be manufactured and administered right in the home on Buck’s Peak. Indeed, he would come to refer to these remedies as “God’s Pharmacy.”

His wife Faye acted as the family’s primary medical caregiver, concocting homeopathic remedies for the children. Tara and her siblings were treated with their mothers’ herbal mixtures of calendula, lobelia, and witch hazel.

Tyler Escapes Buck’s Peak

One of Tara’s brothers, Tyler, had always been different. He was intellectually curious, studious, and enjoyed reading books. His demeanor and interests set him apart from his more rough-and-tumble brothers, whom Tara would later liken to a pack of wolves—always testing one another, always looking for weakness. This formed the basis of a special bond between Tara and Tyler. It was Tyler who introduced her to classical music, and helped ignite her first sparks of interest in the world outside Buck’s Peak, Idaho.

Once he left for college, he rarely returned home. Years later, Tara, looking back through the lens of her own liberation from the family, would observe that he was “building a new life for himself across enemy lines.”

His decision to go to college and openly defy Gene’s propaganda planted a seed in Tara. It would serve as a powerful example of a life that could be achieved outside the confines of her isolated world. Tara would later walk the path that had been paved by Tyler.

Tara Plans Her Own Escape

Even as a teenager, Tara could see the life she was destined for if she stayed on Buck’s Peak. She would be married off at 18 or 19, and she and her husband would be given some remote corner of the family property on which to build a house and start their own family. She would likely have a life which replicated that of her own mother: learning homeopathy, bearing children, and acting as a midwife.

Tara was now determined to get out, to seek a different life off of Buck’s Peak, Idaho, just as Tyler had done. She drove 40 miles to the nearest bookstore and purchased an ACT study guide. But after being confounded by the algebraic notations in the math section, she realized just how deep her ignorance ran. It wasn’t simply that she didn’t know how to solve the problems—she didn’t even recognize the symbols. She was mathematically illiterate.

The next day, she drove the same distance to purchase an algebra textbook: she now knew that she would need to cram years worth of learning into a few short months. Tara set to work teaching herself the most basic mathematical operations like multiplying fractions and decimals—things she would have mastered years before, had she had the benefit of a proper education. But slowly, painstakingly, she made progress.

Tara Leaves Buck’s Peak

Life at college would bring new opportunities, as well as new challenges for Tara. She began wriggling free from her family’s dogma, but was constantly reminded of just how profound an effect Buck’s Peak had on her. Her new experiences at college would force Tara to look at her old life on Buck’s Peak in a whole new light.

Fish Out of Water

On New Year’s Day, Faye drove Tara to her new life at BYU. What struck Tara immediately was the noise in Provo, Utah, where the university was located. Growing up on Buck’s Peak, she had been accustomed to constant silence. Here, however, there was noise from crosswalk signals, motor traffic, and people on the streets. It was her first small taste of culture shock.

She received an even bigger shock when she met her roommates. One of them wore clothes that her father would have surely decried as frivolous and indecent, like tank tops with spaghetti straps and pink pajama bottoms with “Juicy” written on the back. They also shopped on the Sabbath and, overall, appeared to lead highly secular lives. These were the exact kind of women that her parents and Shawn had told her to stay away from.

Tara quickly clashed with these roommates over issues of cleanliness and personal hygiene. Growing up, Gene had taught Tara that practices like washing one’s hands after using the bathroom and disposing of rotten food in a garbage bag were frivolous. Thus, Tara thought nothing of leaving moldy peaches in the refrigerator or only showering once a week.

Tara’s academic career was about to take her to new heights of intellectual and personal discovery, taking her to places she’d never dreamed she would go. But the chaos and extremism of Buck’s Peak would continue to exert a powerful hold.

Tara’s Final Break From Buck’s Peak

By the time Tara was in graduate school at Cambridge and Harvard, Tara’s parents believed she was possessed by demons because of how far her life had strayed from the way she was raised on Buck’s Peak. Gene offered to perform a blessing on Tara to rid her of demons, but she declined. Her defiance of her father and refusal of his blessing was a watershed moment for Tara. She saw that all of her study, hard work, and intellectual development had led to this moment.

Still, Tara yearned to be part of her family. The heartache of being separated from them was destroying her. She decided to return to Buck’s Peak, Idaho for one last chance to reconcile. She showed up for a surprise visit. Faye was ecstatic when Tara came through the door. For a moment, Tara felt as though she was still loved, still accepted for who she was.

That was, until she went to the family computer to send an email. She happened to see a previously sent email open in the browser, from Faye to Erin, one of Shawn’s ex-girlfriends. In the email, Faye castigated Tara as a liar and a danger to the rest of the family. She said that Tara was lost and without faith.

The message was clear: Faye would never defend Tara and truly believed that the latter was the source of the family’s problems. It was now clear that this was no longer Tara’s home, and hadn’t been for a long time. There was nothing left on Buck’s Peak for Tara, nothing for her to cherish or hold on to.

She made an excuse that she was going to her car to take a drive. As she left, she saw her father, who hugged her and said, “I love you, you know that?” Tara replied, “That has never been the issue.” These were the last words she spoke to her father. She got in her car and drove away—away from Buck’s Peak, and away from her former life

Buck’s Peak: Why Tara Westover Escaped the Mountain

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Here's what you'll find in our full Educated summary:

  • How Tara Westover was abused by her brother as a child
  • Why Tara's parents set up the children for failure
  • How Tara ultimately broke out of her parents' grasp and succeeded for herself

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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