Sarah Palin, Going Rogue: An American Life
Publisher: Harper Collins
2009, 413 pages, cloth, $28.99
A caveat: I could only get through Going Rogue by treating it as a work of fiction. Given that, anything positive I say about Sarah Palin from here on out is strictly from a storytelling perspective, as I look at the literary choices she made to showcase herself. True, on a word-by-word level, the writing falls just short of terrible experimental prose, but the story itself is a classic Greek drama. Palin unintentionally casts herself as a tragic hero that fights to change a flawed system from within, and is eventually crushed by it. No single element of Going Rogue does more to create the feeling of raw grandeur than Palin’s favorite set piece: Alaska.
The book opens at the Alaska State Fair as Palin breathes in “an autumn bouquet that combined everything small-town America with rugged splashes of the Last Frontier.” Palin’s Alaska is big, beautiful, and teeming with opportunities. You can’t fire a buckshot without hitting a caribou and striking oil, provided you are rugged and individualistic enough to want to live in the Last Frontier. Palin emphasizes the “otherness” of Alaska, and trades on it as a source of credibility. She reminds us that you really can see Russia from Alaska, and shares the joys of salmonberry wine, reindeer sausages, and giant cabbages grown under the midnight sun. Alaska is an extreme place to live, so to survive there, you have to be a special kind of person. In describing her state, Palin exudes a pride similar to desert dwellers, and survivors of New York winters. Not everyone would choose to live in such isolation, subject to extreme temperatures, so Palin must be a new kind of public figure. Here, Palin runs into trouble. She rails against the elite, but she has spent pages convincing us that she is part of a small group, which is decidedly better than the majority. So how does one go about creating the image of an ordinary outsider? Palin makes a slick move, and only a place like Alaska would allow her to do it.
Y’see, folks, Palin is normal. For an Alaskan. As a hockey mom and a hunter she loves the activities afforded to her by a frigid climate and an untapped wilderness. If Alaska is abnormal for the lower 48 (affectionately referred to as “outside”), it’s because Alaska, and Alaskans, must be closer to a pure state of nature. Palin says that Alaska TV was still tape-delayed growing up, so she didn’t watch a lot of it. She was out in nature, running around and bagging her dinner with a rifle. In short, she grew up strong, raised by a land that would not coddle her. She grew up the way people used to, and that rustic quaintness might not be normal to us today, but that’s just because we have forgotten the old ways. Alaska is “a young state whose people clung to America’s original pioneering and independent spirit.” We have stumbled, while Alaska has remained true.
Palin uses Alaska’s raw landscape to trigger a nostalgia for something we never knew, perhaps something that never even existed. Still, we can dream about a time when we alone were responsible for our success in life, or our failure. It is romantic to picture a mythic land where unlimited opportunities poured forth from the ocean, and the ground was rich with oil. Moreover, it is a compelling story because we must ask ourselves if we would be strong enough to survive. Likewise, Palin’s a compelling character because the strength of her upbringing is not enough to help her succeed in Washington. By failing, Palin shows us there’s a harder place to live than Alaska.
My Sarah Palin, the doomed hubristic hero, probably does not exist. Disappointingly enough, she is probably an exceedingly average person who is not remarkably good, evil, or anything. Even so, I hold out hope that some part of what she has said about Alaska’s majesty is true. After all, even if the play’s actors are all fakes, the set pieces have to be made out of something real. Fictions like those in Going Rogue last because we get something from believing them. I love the idea that a rough and tumble wilderness like Palin’s Alaska could still exist. If it did, then I would have something to thank for creating someone as crazy and entertaining as the real Sarah Palin.
Currently, Ezra Fox is an MFA fiction student at San Francisco State University. He and his friends make fun of the worst books in the world at http://read-weep.com.