book reviews, LDS

Reposted book review: The Sound of Gravel, by Ruth Wariner…

Here’s another reposted book review posted as/is from my original blog. This review was written and posted on April 1, 2018.

A review of The Sound of Gravel, by Ruth Wariner…

Back in 2007, my husband Bill told me about Irene Spencer’s book, Shattered Dreams.   It was about being one of many wives to a polygamist.  It was in Spencer’s book that I first heard of Colonia LeBaron, a Mormon polygamist colony in Mexico started by the LeBaron brothers, who were all excommunicated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for teaching and practicing plural marriage. 

There was a time when mainstream true believing Mormons practiced polygamy, but they were forced to abandon plural marriage when Utah became a state.  Some church members didn’t want to give up polygamy and started their own Mormon offshoots.  Colonia LeBaron is one of the better known of the Mormon fundamentalist groups that broke off from the mainstream church founded by Joseph Smith. 

Irene Spencer was married to Verlan LeBaron.  She was the second of Verlan LeBaron’s wives and bore thirteen of his 58 children.  She died March 12, 2017 in Mexico. 

This morning, I finished reading The Sound of Gravel, a 2016 memoir written by Ruth Wariner, who is one of Verlan LeBaron’s nieces.  Ruth Wariner’s mother, Kathy Wariner, was married to Joel LeBaron, who was one of Verlan’s brothers.  She was Joel’s fifth wife.  Joel LeBaron was the head of Colonia LeBaron and he had many rivals, including his younger brother, Ervil, who’d had a falling out with Joel.  On August 20, 1972, when Ruth Wariner was just three months old, Ervil had two of his followers murder Joel LeBaron.  Ruth was the 39th of Joel LeBaron’s 42 children.  Follow the link for Wariner’s own explanation of the history behind Colonia LeBaron.

Ruth Wariner’s mother, Kathy, eventually remarried, becoming the second wife of a man named Lane.  Lane had several wives, all of whom were having his babies.  Kathy had four children with Joel LeBaron and another six with Lane.  Ruth grew up tending to her younger siblings, as if she was also their mother.  Some of the kids in the colony had severe disabilities, including Ruth’s sister, Meri, who eventually died.  The family was extremely poor and lived on food stamps.  They would take regular trips into the United States to use them at grocery stores near the border.  Lane would also work in the United States to earn money to support his ever growing family.

Lane was a horrible man.  He was cruel and abusive to his wives and children and he exploited the children Kathy had with Joel LeBaron.  The lifestyle in the colony was difficult because they were so desperately poor.  There was little emphasis on schooling, even (and perhaps especially) among the really bright kids.  As one of Kathy’s eldest kids, Ruth was called upon to protect and nurture her mother’s children as she was herself growing up.

I am a sucker for a good memoir, especially one about “fringe religions”.  Mormon fundamentalism is definitely among the fringiest of the fringe religions.  I noticed Wariner’s books got good ratings on Amazon and, having just read Educated, by Tara Westover, who also grew up fringe style Mormon and off the grid, I was game for another good read.  I noticed a few similarities between Westover’s book and Wariner’s, although Westover wasn’t in a polygamous family.  In both families, there was abuse and poverty.  Both families involved members who wanted to live free of government interference, although Wariner’s family was willing to exploit social welfare programs in the United States, while Westover’s family avoided all contact with the government.

I was also attracted to Wariner’s book because she is exactly one month older than I am.  I remember what life was like for me in the 80s.  Ruth Wariner did have some exposure to some of the pop culture of that era.  Indeed, in Colonia LeBaron, there was even dancing and drinking of alcohol.  Of course, Ruth was a child taking care of children and was too busy to really get to be a teenager.  When I think about how difficult it was for me to be a teen, I can’t help but realize that Ruth Wariner had it so much harder than I ever could.  And yet, she still manages to inject some hope and love into her writing.  It doesn’t sound all bad to be growing up in a polygamous colony.  She did have a lot of love for her siblings, cousins, and other relatives.

When she was fifteen years old, Ruth Wariner suddenly became orphaned when her mother, one of her brothers, and one of Kathy’s sister wives’ brothers died in a freak accident.  When Kathy Wariner died, she left behind three very young children, the youngest of whom was only five months old and was being breastfed at the time of her mother’s very sudden, tragic death.  Ruth had told her mother that Lane was sexually abusing Ruth and her mother had made sure he stayed away from Ruth and the other kids.  But when Kathy died, that protection was gone. 

When Ruth determined that Lane was victimizing Kathy’s other kids, she decided she had to act.  It was time to escape to America.  That’s what she did.  I would have been interested in reading more about what it was like to reintegrate into American society and how she managed to help raise her mother’s children to be functioning adults.

To be honest, I think there’s another book in Ruth Wariner’s story.  Ultimately, The Sound of Gravel is about what it was like for her to grow up in a polygamous Mormon cult in Mexico.  It’s not until the end of the book that she escapes with her siblings.  The escape was orchestrated by Ruth’s eldest brother, Matt, and his first wife, Maria.  There’s not much information about the escape itself or the aftermath of it.  Instead, readers get a long buildup to what caused her to make the brave decision to leave. 

Ruth Wariner is clearly very resilient and resourceful.  She earned her GED and went on to finish college and graduate school.  She was a high school Spanish teacher for years.  The Sound of Gravel is her first book, but it’s been very well received.  She is now a happily married writer, speaker, and small business owner in Oregon and stays in touch with her siblings.

I really enjoyed Ruth Wariner’s book, even if parts of it were infuriating.  Her stepfather was truly an evil bastard.  But what a gift Ruth Wariner was to her siblings, whom she saved from abuse and a poverty.  I highly recommend The Sound of Gravel, especially for those who enjoy true stories.  Just be prepared to be shocked and horrified more than a couple of times.

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book reviews

Repost of my review of Tara Westover’s Educated…

I reviewed Tara Westover’s book, Educated, back in March 2018. Since I have been forced to lock down my original blog, I will repost that review here for those who are interested in my thoughts on it. I am doing this because Educated reminds me a lot of Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ book, Small Fry, which I just reviewed yesterday.

Here goes…

That Duggar group I joined may end up giving me more bang for the buck than I initially realized.  It was in that group that I first heard about the book Educated: A Memoir.  Released to the public on February 20, 2018, Educated was written by Tara Westover, a woman who spent the first sixteen years of her life growing up unschooled and very religious in rural Idaho.

Those who read this blog regularly may know that I generally take a pretty dim view of Mormonism. I have a lot of reasons for feeling the way I do about the religion– reasons that are easily found within many of my blog posts.  Today, I want to go on record to say that I know very well that there are many fine Mormons out there.  Tara Westover was the beneficiary of Mormons who were just plain good people.  I believe Brigham Young University may have even saved her life.

Westover was sixteen when she left home for college at Brigham Young University.  It was there that she entered a classroom for the first time in her life.  It was also there that she was identified as a scholar.  She has since gone on to earn a doctoral degree in history at Cambridge University in England, stopping at Harvard University along the way to be a visiting fellow.  Her story is incredible and miraculous.  I found it impossible to put down, and it’s not very often that I can say that anymore about books I read.

Against all odds, Tara Westover, youngest of seven kids raised by an extremely neglectful and somewhat “crazy” father and a very busy midwife mother, now has a doctorate, as do two of her brothers.  The other children in the family remain largely unschooled, save for the eldest, who did earn a GED (high school general equivalency diploma).  At the end of Educated, Westover notes that her family is divided by an educational chasm.  Half stayed in the survivalist world of rural Idaho.  The other half went on to academic glory.

Westover’s family lived in Buck’s Peak, a mountain that changed with the seasons.  Her father’s mother lived at the bottom of the hill.  She is described as kind of cranky, but relatively normal.  She had a phone, and when people would call for Tara’s mother to deliver their babies, “Grandma from down the hill” would relay the message… at least until Tara’s mother had a phone line put in, against her husband’s wishes.

Tara’s mother’s mother was known as “Grandma out in town”.  She lived in a pretty house with a white picket fence.  Westover writes that her maternal grandmother had come from “the wrong side of the tracks” and was treated badly by her peers.  Consequently, she wanted her children to look like they came from a good family.  Westover’s mother grew up wearing beautifully tailored clothes that her mother had made by hand.  “Grandma out in town” would obsess over the outfits her daughter wore to church, which seemed to be a bone of contention that drove Tara’s mother to marry the crazy guy with jet black hair who lived on Buck’s Peak.

Tara Westover’s father was an extremely devout Mormon.  He didn’t trust the government and only had his first two children’s births recorded.  According to Westover, he wouldn’t take his children to doctors and relied on his wife to prepare herbal tinctures to cure them of their ailments.  He regularly drove his children in vehicles that lacked seatbelts.  Twice, they were in serious accidents and were injured badly enough that they probably should have visited an emergency room.  In fact, Tara’s father didn’t even teach his kids to wash their hands after using the bathroom.  When he was confronted by Tara’s maternal grandmother, he replied “I teach my kids not to piss on their hands.”

Westover’s father made money by scrapping metal and building hay sheds.  He talked his wife into learning how to be a midwife, even though she hated the work and was reluctant to do it.  Every time she protested being a midwife, he would tell her it was what God wanted her to do.  Indeed, once she was trained by her predecessor, Tara’s mother was the only midwife in the area and was kept very busy delivering babies from cash strapped locals who couldn’t afford to go to a hospital.  From a very early age, Tara Westover witnessed babies being born.  She was also exposed to many other elements of life that most youngsters never encounter.  Tara’s father was a survivalist and likely very mentally ill.  One of her oldest brothers was violent and Tara often took the brunt of his propensity toward physical abuse.

Had it not been for Tara’s more normal mother and another brother, who had decided to venture out of Buck’s Peak and get an education, Tara Westover might still be living on that mountain rounding up feral horses and selling them for slaughter.  Yes, wild horses were yet another source of income for Westover’s family.  They lived as far off the grid as possible… as wild as the feral horses on the hill.  Tara’s father relied on his family members to help him make a living.  According to Tara, he tried to force them to work for him on multiple occasions.  She had to be careful about the help she accepted from him.

The story of how Westover arrived at BYU is pretty amazing, especially when you consider that Westover didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was in her teens.  Because her parents did not register five of their seven children at birth, the children ran into problems as they came of age.  They had no school records or medical records, so doing things like getting a driver’s license or entering college was a real challenge.  In fact, they weren’t even completely sure when their birthdays were.  Westover writes that she’d pick a day every year during her birth month– never on Sunday, because it’s not fun to celebrate a birthday at church.

Tara’s brother told her about the ACT exam, for which many youngsters prepare for years.  Tara took it the first time and got a respectable score, even though she had never been to school.  She took it the second time and got a high enough score to get into Brigham Young University, known in LDS circles as a “tough” school.  She achieved admittance when she was sixteen.  Most kids at that age are in their junior years of high school.

When she arrived at BYU, Westover knew pretty much nothing.  She hadn’t even heard of the Holocaust.  When she told a professor she didn’t know the word “Holocaust”, he thought she was joking.  She had no concept of how to do algebra and worried that her grades in college algebra would cause her to lose her scholarship.

Even her living situation was strange.  BYU students are known for being very religious and clean cut.  Tara took the religious standards to extremes, becoming distinctly uncomfortable when she’d see her roommates in tank tops or drinking Diet Cokes.  When she got a very bad headache, she suffered with it until her boyfriend introduced her to the miracle of ibuprofen.  The same boyfriend insisted that Tara learn to wear seatbelts and would not drive the car until she put one on.

A friend had to take Tara to a clinic to be treated for strep throat and mono because she had no idea of how to access medical care; she’d never been to a doctor for any reason.  When her mother found out Tara was taking antibiotics, her mom sent her herbals, not to cure the strep, but to “flush” the toxic antibiotics out of her system.

When Tara finally applied for a federal grant to help her squeak by in school, she panicked when she was awarded $4000.  She had only wanted $1400 so she could get a tooth fixed.  Her friends and a kindly bishop had to explain to her that she could use that money to make herself a little more comfortable.  Grant money does not have to be repaid.  And… it did not go unnoticed by Tara’s roommates that she didn’t wash her hands after she used the bathroom.

Another kind professor had noticed how fine Tara Westover’s mind is and encouraged her to apply for a program at Cambridge University.  Despite the steep learning curve Tara faced as she entered 21st century living, Tara was a success in school.  But she still had to be convinced that she belonged there and deserved to use her academic gifts.  And that is what I believe is the main idea of this fantastic story.

Years ago, I read The Glass Castle, a famous book written by Jeannette Walls.  Walls similarly grew up in a very unconventional way with parents who were both abusive and neglectful.  Walls’ parents believed in their children learning from their own mistakes.  If you’ve read The Glass Castle, and a lot of people have, Educated will probably remind you of it somewhat.  I’m pretty sure I read The Glass Castle when we were in Germany the first time, so it’s been about ten years for me.  I’m glad it’s been that long.  Otherwise, I might have been tempted to compare the two books.

Westover’s story is complicated, yet fascinating.  The book is divided into three parts.  The last part seemed somewhat less compelling to me than the first two, possibly because Westover had grown up and was now realizing that she couldn’t go back home again.  Tara Westover’s decision to go to college caused a rift in her family.  She no longer has contact with some family members.  Not surprisingly, the reviews of this book are interesting– especially the one star reviews, a couple of which were apparently written by siblings.  Some reviews are also left by people who claim to know the Westovers and are offended by Tara Westover’s account of growing up in that family.

As I was finishing the book, it occurred to me that Bill’s daughter might be experiencing something similar.  In fact, my perspective of Mormonism has shifted somewhat as I’ve heard more about her story.  I still don’t like Mormonism, but I do think it can be a lifesaver for some people… Bill’s daughter included.  As for Westover, I have a feeling that she’s figured out the truth about the church, but may remain in it because of what it’s given her.

Anyway… I highly recommend Educated.  It’s a great read and an excellent example of what one can accomplish even when the odds are stacked against them.  It wouldn’t surprise me if this book doesn’t turn into a movie someday.

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book reviews

A review of Small Fry, by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

I’m not exactly sure what made me download Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ book Small Fry. It’s true that I became an Apple convert about eight years ago and all of my computers and devices were made by Apple. I didn’t know that much about Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ father, the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, who died in 2011 at age 56. He’d had a form of pancreatic cancer. I do remember that after his death, a lot was written about how eccentric he was, particularly regarding his diet. But aside from that, I didn’t really have a particular interest in Apple beyond my Apple products.

I just finished reading Brennan-Jobs’ book, which was published in September 2018. I found it surprisingly interesting and engaging reading. Brennan-Jobs is the product of Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan. They had met in 1972, when they were students at Homestead High School in Cupertino, California. Chrisann was an artist, and Jobs was enchanted by her. Back then, he was kind of a “bum”. He had attended Reed College in Oregon for a short spell, but dropped out of school, and he and Chrisann had an on again, off again relationship. Lisa was born on a farm on May 17, 1978. Her parents took her into a field and named her together, but then Lisa temporarily lost her dad when he claimed he wasn’t her father.

For several years after her birth, Steve Jobs denied paternity. Even though Lisa looked a lot like her dad, and he had even helped name her, it took a legal case and a blood test to finally prove to Jobs that he had a daughter. This was happening during the earliest days of Apple, so there was a lot of press about it. Once the blood test proved Lisa was Jobs’ daughter, he started to take an interest in her… although she mostly grew up with her much poorer mom.

In heartbreaking detail, Brennan-Jobs describes what it was like to grow up the daughter of such a brilliant but eccentric man. She explains his complicated family life; he had been the product of a Muslim Syrian man and his German-Swiss girlfriend. The girlfriend’s parents objected to her marrying a Muslim, so she gave Steve up for adoption. He was raised by Paul and Clara Jobs, who were working class white folks. Steve’s adoptive mom was the daughter of ethnic Armenians who had immigrated. Paul and Clara Jobs also adopted a daughter named Patty, to whom Steve was never close. Steve also had a biological sister, the novelist Mona Simpson. After he met his biological mother, Steve and Mona began a brother-sister relationship and Mona was part of Lisa’s life. When Steve and Chrisann were dating as teens, Steve’s adoptive mom confided in Chrisann that for the first six months of his life, she had been afraid to get close to him because his bio mom wanted him back and she was afraid she was going to lose him. At the time, Chrisann didn’t know why Mrs. Jobs was telling her that, but as Jobs came of age, it became clear. He turned into a very strange person who had stormy relationships.

One might assume Lisa Brennan-Jobs would have had the coolest upbringing ever. Her dad helped found Apple, and NeXT. He was a multi-millionaire who lived in big, empty houses and shopped at Armani. But Lisa always seemed to teeter on the brink of his life. He chose when he wanted to acknowledge her, and seemed to kick her out and pull her back into his life whenever it suited him. When she did something he didn’t like, he would accuse her of not trying to be part of the family. More than once, he cut her off financially for doing something against his wishes, or he would simply act like he didn’t care about her at all. Still, somehow, she stayed in his life until he died. Sometimes, he was okay and even approached being loving somehow. But then he’d spoil the loving moments by being shitty. His first computer was called the Lisa, but he later claimed he’d named it after an ex-girlfriend. Lisa’s mom rightfully called bullshit on that one.

I am very impressed by Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ writing. It’s clear and easy to understand. I thought Small Fry was well-edited, especially considering the complex nature of Brennan-Jobs’ relationship with her dad. I am astonished that Brennan-Jobs seems to be so together, particularly since her mother appears to also be a bit eccentric. Chrisann Brennan’s mom was schizophrenic and cruel; consequently, she spent years living with her father and his second wife. With parents like Lisa’s, it would seem she’d seem less wise than she does in her book. But then, she is a first born/only child (Jobs had three more children with his wife, Laurene Powell), and first born/only children often grow up fast and are very responsible. Lisa was very motivated and managed to accomplish a lot on her own, a quality I admire very much. She even graduated from Harvard, although she basically namedropped her dad’s name to score acceptance.

In some ways, Small Fry reminds me a bit of Tara Westover’s Educated, which I read and reviewed on my old blog. I don’t think Brennan-Jobs’ upbringing was quite as chaotic or shocking as Westover’s was, but when you consider who her dad was, it does seem crazy. Poor Lisa attended a birthday party for one of her father’s other children. There was a display depicting the family– Steve, Laurene, Reed, Erin, and Eve. Lisa wasn’t on the display, and her little sister announced to her friends that Lisa was “Daddy’s mistake”. Ouch. (Actually, when I was a kid, my mom referred to me as a “mistake”, too, so I kind of know how it feels.) I just got the feeling that Lisa never really felt secure with her place in the family, since Jobs was constantly accusing her of not trying hard enough to fit in. And Jobs was also often verbally abusive to people, particularly regarding food. Jobs was notoriously obsessed with his diet and would yell at people who either didn’t serve him the food he wanted exactly how he wanted it, or he would berate people who didn’t eat the way he felt they should. He once screamed at Lisa’s cousin on her mom’s side for eating a hamburger, which he considered “dead food”.

To be honest… Steve Jobs may have given us Apple, but he sounds like he was a major league asshole. A brilliant asshole, yes, but an asshole just the same. I felt great empathy for Lisa. It’s tough growing up with a parent like that, especially when your friends have parents who are caring , supportive, and kind. Anyway… I’m glad she at least got a gorgeously written book out of the experience, and it’s one of which she should be very proud. I highly recommend it to those who like a good memoir.

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