As I said last time, Westover has a problem, in that we will want Tara to run away from her family home long before she does, and then we’ll want her to stop going back, which she will not do until the final chapter. (In the end, she says she’ll keep visiting other relatives in Idaho, but seemingly never again her parents or her mountain.)
How can Westover help us understand her decision?
- First, she must make Tara’s relationships to her family complex: None of them is all bad. They all love her in their own insufficient and/or twisted ways. We can even understand the appeal of “Shawn”, her most abusive family member. We understand how she would keep trying to get the love she’s lacking from these people, even though we can see long before she can that she never will.
- Second, there’s a big element of wish fulfillment in self-sufficiency. The first sentence recalls “The Boxcar Children”, a book about orphaned kids in the depression that kids nevertheless read as wish-fulfillment, dreaming of living on their own wits and whiles in the woods. The mere fact of not being protected at all is seductive, both to young Tara and to the reader.
- Third, there is a character that Tara can have uncomplicated love for, one that it will be the most painful to leave: The mountain itself.
You often hear said of good books that “The setting is a character”, but that’s especially true here. Let’s just focus on examples from the first paragraph.
- The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling.
- Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air.
- Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base.
- If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess.
Two pages later, she will soon explain that there is an Indian legend that says the mountain is a princess:
- My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley. Dad said the nomadic Indians had watched for her appearance as a sign of spring, a signal the mountain was thawing, winter was over, and it was time to come home.
Her family is hard to love, but who wouldn’t want to have their own beautiful mountain, literally right out of a fairy tale? To leave the mountain is to leave her own princess-tale.
Let’s look at one more sentence from the second paragraph:
- The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads.
This is beautifully written and very seductive. We will want to read the book for its lyrical power, and for the way it will get us to fall in love with nature again, as we would fall in love with a lover. And we will understand Tara’s love. Even when it seems like her parents want her dead, she will have the Princess to love and the Princess will seem to love her back, in its anthropomorphized way.