Tara describes the setting of her childhood home and a memory of being seven years old and realizing her family was different, as none of the siblings attended school and many didn't have birth certificates. She reflects on how her knowledge was confined to a small region, which proved inadequate in her adulthood.


Chapter 1: Choose the Good

Tara grows up the youngest of seven children on a farm. Her father, very religious and suspicious of the government, prevents his children from attending school and stockpiles supplies. Her father's mother disagrees with her father's ideas and offers to take Tara away to attend school, but Tara feels unable to leave her family.

Chapter 2: The Midwife

Tara's mother, an herbalist, became a busy unlicensed midwife, financially independent from Tara's father but still deferential to him. She teaches Tara some of her healing techniques and gets her a birth certificate.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Prologue & Chapters 1 & 2

Chapter 3: Cream Shoes

Without her family’s permission, Tara's mother, Faye, married Tara's father, Gene. As Gene grew older and had more children, he became more paranoid and controlling.

Chapter 4: Apache Women

Faye takes the family to Arizona to visit her in-laws. Gene spends most of the visit arguing with his mother, who one day takes Tara and her brother Richard to the desert to gather some rocks. On the way back, the family has a serious accident, and Faye experiences a brain injury, which causes confusion and migraines.

Chapter 5: Honest Dirt

Tara’s brother Tyler, who had always been studious and introduced Tara to classical music, announces he wants to go to college, disturbing Gene, who heavily depends on Tyler's help since his older sons Tony and Shawn left home.

Chapter 6: Shield and Buckler

Faye starts concocting oils she believes have healing properties. Tara's sister Audrey begins to work and becomes more independent. Tara and Richard help their father with his dangerous work with scrap metal. One day, Tara is involved in an accident, has her injuries treated by her mother, tells her father she wants to go to school, and backs down when he disapproves.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 3–6

Chapters 7: The Lord Will Provide

While helping his father in the junkyard, Tara's brother Luke spills gasoline on his clothes, accidentally sets himself on fire, and causes the fire to spread to the surrounding area.

Chapters 8: Tiny Harlots

Tara starts taking piano and dance lessons, which she hides from her father. After Tara's father is outraged at her dance recital, her mother suggests she take voice lessons instead. Tara sings a hymn at church, and her father, proud of her talents, allows her to audition for a role in a local production of the musical Annie.

Chapters 9: Perfect in His Generations

Tara successfully plays the role of Annie, continues to act and sing, and meets a boy named Charles, who is friendly to her. Her father makes the family prepare for January 1, 2000, a day he believes will be catastrophic, and is then astounded when the New Year comes and nothing abnormal happens.

Chapters 10: Shield of Feathers

As Gene gets depressed, the family goes on a trip to Arizona again. They have a car accident on the way back, and Tara injures her neck. Sometime later, her older brother Shawn moves home again.

Chapters 11: Instinct

Shawn takes an interest in Tara's life, helps her tame a horse, drives her to theater rehearsals, and helps her when she is almost thrown off her horse.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 7–11

Chapter 12: Fish Eyes

Tara accompanies Shawn when he temporarily takes over Tony's trucking business, and they become much closer. Shawn meets a girl named Sadie and is alternately flirtatious with and cruel to her. One day, when Shawn treats Tara in the same bossy way, she dumps a glass of water on his head, and he hurts her.

Chapter 13: Silence in the Churches

Audrey gets married, and Tara’s father starts warning about an impending holy war. When Charles goes on a date with Sadie after she and Shawn break up, Shawn threatens Charles in a jealous rage. The next morning, Tara awakes to Shawn attacking her and calling her names, and she is saved from Shawn's rage by Tyler, who arrives unexpectedly. Shawn apologizes to Tara, explaining he was trying to protect her from becoming sinful, but Tyler urges her to go to college.

Chapter 14: My Feet No Longer Touch Earth

Tara prepares for the ACT exam to apply to college, and she takes trigonometry lessons from Tyler, who is graduating as an engineer and planning to complete a PhD. Shawn has an accident and is taken to a hospital after starting to behave strangely and aggressively. When Shawn returns home, he and Sadie reunite.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 12–14

Chapter 15: No More a Child

Despite her father's disapproval, Tara continues to prepare with her mother's support and takes the ACT. On the day her scores arrive, her father abruptly tells her to move out, which she avoids by reminding her parents she is only 16. Her father demands that Tara and Shawn work on a dangerous machine.

Chapter 16: Disloyal Man, Disobedient Heaven

Shawn gets in a motorcycle accident and Tara takes him to the hospital despite her father's instructions to bring him home. Tara is accepted to Brigham Young University and scheduled to start college in January.


Chapter 17: To Keep It Holy

Tara moves to Utah into a place with two roommates, Mary and Shannon, who are also Mormon but less rigid about their faith than Tara. Most of her courses make no sense to Tara, who hadn't heard about events such as the Holocaust, and she begins to disagree with her roommates about some Mormon traditions.

Chapter 18: Blood and Feathers

Tara struggles with the expenses of attending college, but her father surprisingly offers to help. By chance, she learns she is expected to read the textbooks for her classes, and her grades improve dramatically once she starts doing so.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 15–18

Chapter 19: In the Beginning

When the semester ends, Tara returns home for the summer and is forced by her father to return to scrapping. She is awarded a scholarship that allows her to continue her studies. Charles asks her out on a date, but she panics the first time he tries to touch her.

Chapter 20: Recitals of the Fathers

Tara starts to feel uncomfortable with her father's and Shawn's behavior, like when her brother uses a racial epithet as a nickname for her.

Chapter 21: Skullcap

Tara returns to college and moves in with new roommates: Robin, Megan, and Jenni. She learns about some social norms from Robin, develops stomach ulcers because of stress, refuses to see a doctor, and takes on additional work as a janitor. She asks Charles to help her study algebra over Thanksgiving.

Chapter 22: What We Whispered and What We Screamed

On Thanksgiving, Shawn fights Tara when Charles arrives for dinner. Charles leaves, Tara meets him later, but eventually she breaks up with him. Back at college, Tara still refuses to see a doctor or a counselor despite Robin's urges. Back home for Christmas, Tara is shocked to learn her father supports Richard's plans to go to college and is taunted and attacked by Shawn.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 19–22

Chapters 23: I'm from Idaho

Tara starts to meet with her church bishop and talks about her life with him. When the semester ends, the bishop recommends she stay away, but she returns home. Back at school, she has less money than she needs. Shawn surprises her by giving her enough money to return to school, and, urged by the bishop, Tara applies to a grant, receives it, and feels financially secure for the first time in her life.

Chapters 24: A Knight, Errant

After a psychology lecture, Tara starts to suspect her father is mentally ill, and she researches and writes about bipolar disorder. She confronts her father about the impact of his behavior on her life. She stays in Utah for the summer, interns at a law firm, and starts dating a man named Nick. Audrey calls Tara and says their father has been in a serious accident.

Chapters 25: The Work of Sulphur

Tara is horrified by her father's condition, as he burned his face and fingers when a fuel tanker exploded. Nursed by his family, Gene slowly begins to recover.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 23–25

Chapter 26: Waiting for the Moving Water

While Gene is in bed, Tara begins to tell him about her life. When Shawn announces he is engaged to a woman named Emily, Tara tries to dissuade her, but Emily, although frightened of Shawn, also believes he has a spiritual mission. Tara breaks up with Nick, as she feels she will never manage to be honest with him about her family.

Chapter 27: If I Were a Woman

In her junior year, Tara switches from studying music to geography, politics, and history, and her professor convinces her to apply to a study abroad program at the University of Cambridge. Back home for Christmas, Tara learns her application to Cambridge was accepted. After a difficult pregnancy, Emily gives birth to a premature baby at home and needs to be rushed to the hospital in a snowstorm, making Tara further question her family's reliance on trusting God.

Chapter 28: Pygmalion

At Cambridge, Tara works on a research project with Professor Steinberg, who is fascinated by her unconventional education, guides her to a new level of critical analysis and writing, suggests she might go to graduate school at Cambridge, and assures her he will handle the financial details.

Chapter 29: Graduation

Tara returns to BYU and, per Professor Steinberg's urging, applies to and receives a scholarship that will fully fund her studies at Cambridge. Her father expresses his disappointment with Tara for hiding her upbringing from the press, but her parents attend her graduation and drive her to the airport when she leaves for England.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 26–29


Chapter 30: Hand of the Almighty

At Cambridge, Tara moves into a new dorm, attends classes, gets her vaccinations, and becomes interested in feminism. Back home, Tara is pleased to see Richard, who is studying chemistry and has a wife and son. One freezing night, Emily rushes into the family home after Shawn has locked her outside barefoot and with light clothing.

Chapter 31: Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

Tara visits Audrey and worries about her sister homeschooling her children. At Cambridge, Tara excels academically and is encouraged to pursue a PhD. Back from an enlightening visit to Rome, Tara receives an email from Audrey confiding that Shawn abused her too, blaming herself for never helping Tara, and suggesting they both confront their parents and Shawn about it. Audrey shows Faye Tara's email, and Faye tells Tara she believes them, blames herself for ignoring it, and admits Gene is bipolar. Faye tells Tara that Gene knows about Shawn's behavior and that Shawn will get help.

Chapter 32: A Brawling Woman in a Wide House

After learning she won a place at Cambridge to study for a PhD, Tara returns home to see her dying grandmother. After his mother's death, Gene lapses into depression. Tara notices that Faye has become more assertive and that her parents' relationship seems to be deteriorating.

Chapter 33: Sorcery of Physics

Before returning to Cambridge, Tara refuses to stay and help Audrey confront Shawn. Tara is now in a relationship with a man named Drew, immersed in her doctoral research about Mormon theology, and happy with her close friends. Shawn tells Tara that Audrey is spreading lies and that he would shoot Audrey if he didn't consider it a waste of a bullet.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 30–33

Chapters 34: The Substance of Things

Tara tells her father about Shawn's abusive past, but Gene wants proof of her accusations and tells Shawn to come to the house. Shawn threatens Tara and hands her a bloody knife. She renounces her claims, Gene lectures her on the need for feminine obedience, and Shawn leaves. Tara calls Drew, and he urges her to leave. As she passes Shawn's trailer, she notices blood in the snow outside and learns he killed his dog.

Chapters 35: West of the Sun

Back in Cambridge, Tara receives an email from Shawn threatening her life. She tells her parents about it, but they don't help her and, eventually, Shawn cuts her out of his life. That summer, Tara receives an email from Audrey saying Gene is asking them to forgive Shawn, that she has decided to forgive him, blames Tara for corrupting her, and is cutting ties with her. Tara wins a fellowship to Harvard but receives the news with indifference. Tara hears from a woman Shawn dated, Erin, that he abused her as well.

Chapters 36: Four Long Arms Whirling

Tara begins her fellowship at Harvard, learns her parents are coming to visit her, and is advised by Charles to sever ties with her family. Her father says Tara has fallen prey to Satan and offers to give her a blessing, which she refuses, making him predict she will suffer.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 34–36

Chapter 37: Gambling for Redemption

Tara gets depressed and, desperate to reconcile with her parents, flies to see them. By accident, she sees an email from Faye telling Erin that Shawn had been saved, Tara was possessed, and Faye had delivered Emily's second baby despite the risks. Tara leaves the house. As she plans to return to Boston, Tyler calls her, tells her Faye contacted him, wonders why Tara didn't confide in him sooner, and reveals he also experienced Shawn's violence. Tara decides to sever ties with her family for one year to heal.

Chapter 38: Strangers and Pilgrims

Tara's emotional distress leaves her behind in her schoolwork. When Tyler declares he supports Tara and views the family as abusive, Tara starts attending counseling. She manages to focus on her academic work again, submits her dissertation, defends her thesis, and becomes a doctor.

Chapter 39: Watching the Buffalo

Tara returns home and asks her mother to meet her in town, which Faye refuses, claiming she won't go against her husband's will. When Tara's grandmother dies, Tara comes to the funeral and stays with her mother's sister. Observing her family at the funeral, Tara realizes that she, Tyler, and Richard now have doctorates and live independent lives, but her other four siblings and their spouses all work for her parents and homeschool their children.

Chapter 40: Educated

Tara says that she hasn't seen her parents in years, and she has only kept contact with Tyler, Richard, and Tony. She has achieved some peace regarding her relationship with her family but doesn't know if she will ever contact her father again.

Read a full Summary & Analysis of Chapters 37–40