The narrator, Tara, begins by painting a vivid picture of the setting of her childhood home, describing the farm's location near the base of a mountain in rural Idaho. She describes a memory of being seven years old and understanding that her family is different from most other families, since none of the children attended school. Tara then expands her memories to explain some key facts about her family: she is one of seven children, many of whom never received birth certificates, or any formal education. She alludes to the idea of growing up expecting an apocalyptic event to someday occur. She reflects on the idea that as a child, all of her knowledge was confined to a small region of land, and how that knowledge has proved inadequate for her as an adult.
Summary: Chapter 1: Choose the Good
Tara begins by describing a memory she constructed out of a story she heard as child. Her father tells her and her siblings such a vivid story about the house being attacked by federal agents that five-year-old Tara becomes confused and starts to imagine that this event actually took place. Tara grows up the youngest of seven children on an isolated farm at the base of a mountain known as Buck's Peak. Her father's family has lived in this location for generations, and her father's mother, known as Grandma-down-the-hill, lives nearby. Tara's father is a deeply religious man who is also very suspicious of the government. For this reason, he does not allow any of his children to attend school. He also tells his children about an incident where Federal agents shot a family who refused to send their children to school. Living in fear of an impending attack from the Feds, Tara grows up watching her family stockpile food, supplies, and weapons.
Tara's grandmother offers to take Tara away to Arizona so that she can attend school. Although Tara initially tells her grandmother that she will sneak out of the house and run away with her, she finds herself unable to leave her family.
Summary: Chapter 2: The Midwife
Tara recalls watching her mother begin training as an assistant to the local midwife. Tara's mother is hesitant about taking on this role, but Tara's father insists on it. Mother eventually takes over as the primary midwife in the area, which means she is kept very busy. This role gives Tara the chance to learn from the techniques her mother uses, which incorporate traditional herbal knowledge. Mother's work also gives her more financial independence and autonomy, although she is always very careful to be deferential to her husband. Mother takes an active role in eventually getting birth certificates for her four youngest children (Luke, Audrey, Richard, and Tara). When Tara is nine, she accompanies her mother to a birth for the first time. Only then does Tara fully realize that her mother is operating as an unlicensed midwife, and could face serious legal consequences if she is ever caught.
Analysis: Prologue & Chapters 1 & 2
The memoir opens by revealing its central conflict: Tara loves the place where she grew up, but also feels stifled by it. Buck's Peak is an almost Edenic location in that it seems free of the pressures of the outside world. Tara describes the physical world of her childhood home as stark and unforgiving, but also beautiful, and this representation reflects the dynamic with her family as well. It is tempting to quickly interpret the Westover family as bizarre or abusive because they deny their children things like birth certificates, medical care, and access to public education. Nonetheless, Tara makes it clear that her relationship with her family and her past are more complicated than that. She does not simply want to forget or condemn them; Buck's Peak, and the things she learned there, have made her who she is. However, the memoir makes it clear from the beginning that Tara's childhood was ultimately inadequate, and did not prepare her for the life she wanted to lead.
Tara's recollection of her father's story about the Feds, and how it led her to confuse memory and fiction, introduces an important theme into the memoir. Part of what Tara finds challenging about sharing the story of her life is that she has to look back to the past and try to understand what actually happened. Sometimes this process is challenging because she finds her memory unreliable, or her version of events is contradicted by her other family members. However, growing up in an oppressively authoritative family led by a man haunted by paranoid delusions makes navigating memories particularly complex. When she was only five years old, Tara's father started the process of presenting uncertain or fabricated events as if they were the total truth. Because Tara was young and trusting, she assumed her father's view of events was correct, and this started a process whereby she would blindly follow her father's beliefs about the world. Much of the memoir's conflict will later stem from Tara realizing that she has been fed false information about how the world really is.
When Tara's grandmother suggests that she come to Arizona and start school, this invitation foreshadows the central conflict of the memoir. While Tara's grandmother is unwilling to openly challenge her son's authority, and the way he raises his children, she shows a subversive desire to undermine the isolation he is imposing on his children. Although Tara is too young to understand it at the time, her grandmother's invitation to run away opens the possibility for her to lead a normal life and become part of society. However, because of her father's rigid and oppressive authority, this possibility has to involve secrecy and a sense of betrayal. Even though she is only a little girl, Tara has to hide her plan from her family, and cannot tell them what she is planning to do. The choice to take sides with her grandmother or her own parents reflects how, later on, Tara will always have to choose between her ambitions for the future and maintaining a close relationship with her family. Because she is still so young and vulnerable, Tara initially decides that being with her family is more important, and loses the opportunity to lead a normal life in Arizona.