Summary: Chapter 18

Tara realizes that she seriously underestimated the expenses of attending college, and wonders how she will be able to continue to afford it. Her academic performance is nowhere strong enough to win a scholarship, and she struggles in particular with her Western Civilization course. As Tara wrestles with frustration about her strange and unique childhood, she reflects on a memory of an injured wild owl that she and her siblings saved as children. Surprisingly, when Tara confides her worries to her father, he is sympathetic and suggests that he will help her. Through a chance conversation with a classmate, Tara learns that she is expected to read the textbooks for her classes. Once she starts doing so, her grades improve dramatically.

Analysis: Chapters 15-18

Faye's support for Tara shows that her loyalty and values may be more complex than they initially seem. For much of Tara's childhood, Faye has seemed to embody the life Tara is resistant to living. She tends to appear docile and obedient to her husband and his religious doctrine. It is therefore surprising that when Tara indicates that she might give up on her dream of going to college, Faye is insistent that her daughter should go. Perhaps because of her own life experiences, Faye knows the value of a woman having skills and autonomy. Midwifery and herbalism have given Faye the ability to have some authority and independence, and she wants the same for her daughter. By encouraging Tara not to give up her dream just because she is experiencing setbacks, Faye shows that she is also an ally on Tara's road to independence. Faye's decision to be supportive of Tara's dreams is interesting given that she has never openly supported her daughter when Gene was critical of Tara's dreams. Faye is very committed to the idea of appearing to be an obedient and subservient wife, so she won't openly contradict her husband. In private, however, she will share her true opinions and her true self with her daughter.

Ironically, Tara reveals her newfound independence by helping the man who is abusing her. Despite everything Shawn has done to her, Tara is horrified when she realizes her brother has been seriously injured. Her initial impulse to phone their father shows that Tara is still partially an obedient daughter, but her next action shocks both her father and herself. Because Tara already has a plan in place for leaving home and entering the wider world, she is emboldened to defy her father for the first time. Tara also acts out of desperation: she has seen what happened to Shawn when he first suffered brain injuries, so it seems particularly important to secure medical treatment now. Her father's lack of reaction is partially an admission of defeat and acceptance: if Tara is willing to deliberately disobey his explicit instructions, Gene knows that he can never fully control her. Tara is already starting to make her own decisions and act according to her own values. Her education becomes possible when she decides she is going to live life on her own terms.

Tara's initial experiences at college show that she is both intellectually and socially unprepared. The ACT test relied on skills without context, but much of the college experience relies on assumptions that students know things which Tara is totally ignorant about. Her lack of academic knowledge is actually almost less of a problem than her lack of study skills and social norms. The experience is even more challenging because Tara isolates herself and refuses to ask for help. Tara is ashamed of being different, and also defiantly stubborn about not compromising her values. For these reasons, she doesn't form relationships with new people easily at college, and this makes the adjustment even harder for her.

Even though she struggles when she begins college, Tara shows her resilience and resourcefulness. Her question about the Holocaust is very humiliating, but Tara shows her bravery by imitating the behavior of other students and trying to ask a question in class. Even when she is frustrated by her classes, she doesn't drop out. She is willing to do whatever it takes to finance her education, even though she knows she is facing almost insurmountable obstacles. Perhaps most importantly, Tara has the capacity to learn once she finds the tools that will allow her to do so effectively. As soon as she realizes that reading the textbook is a vital step in the learning process, Tara uses this new information to perform better. Because she is so underprepared, Tara experiences a kind of parallel education alongside her college courses: she learns the class content, and she also learns how to learn it.