I had the honor of reading an advance copy of Our Sarah: Made in Alaska, written by Sarah Palin’s father and brother, Chuck Heath, Sr. and Chuck Heath, Jr. Below is my book review of their intimate story of the person who captivated America upon becoming the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee. While many have only seen her through the biased lens of the mainstream media, the authors take us beyond that veil, allowing us to see who Sarah Palin really is and how that person came to be.
How often have you embarked upon a reading journey only to find yourself so captivated by the words on the page that putting the book down is not an option? If you’re lucky, you might encounter such a scenario a handful of times throughout your years. During these experiences, we allow neither hunger, responsibilities, nor sleep to pull us away because we find ourselves glued to the words on each page. These moments, though refreshing, are extremely rare. Our Sarah: Made in Alaska was one such moment for me.
When it comes to Sarah Palin, everyone has a narrative, an impression, an opinion–and most have expressed them. Indeed, the verbiage on the subject is without parallel. But who would you rather hear from–those who claim to know her, or those who know her well, who have seen her at both her weakest and strongest moments, and have shared a lifetime of memories with her? Chuck Heath, Sr. and Chuck Heath, Jr. have promised readers an intimate look into the life of this political lightning rod who has captured the minds, if not the hearts, of all of America. They delivered. While many view her, and thus refer to her, as the former governor of the remote state of Alaska, her father and brother’s vantage point is much closer–so close, in fact, that they’re able to do what most, even her most ardent supporters, cannot do: refer to her, in earnest, as “our Sarah.” The magic they have performed, however, is that the pages of their book, which hold the chapters of Palin’s life, convince us that we on the outside are in that same place of familiarity, or, at the very least, that it’s well within our reach.
I had been curious about the logistics of how Chuck, Sr. and Chuck, Jr. would co-author a book in which they shared family experiences. For example, how would they refer to certain people? Would Mrs. Heath be “Sally” or would she be “Mom”? Would Sarah be “my daughter” or “my sister”? Simple things like that grabbed my curiosity. The style they chose was perfect. Through alternating chapters, each author is able to share his own reflections and emotions surrounding a particular event, as he remembers it and as he feels it.
Though she is the subject of the book, and not the author, Sarah’s spirit is very much there, from the first page. She penned the foreword, and like a tour guide, she leads us as we set out on the journey. But then she withdraws, handing us over to the capable leadership of authors she trusts. Trusting them, however, did not shield her from feelings of apprehension when they decided to write the book, and she candidly tells readers why she was conflicted.
I began the reading with the knowledge that the father-son team intended to provide stories of family adventures, Sarah’s foundation of faith, and the influences that brought her to the place where she now stands. Yes, I found those things. What I also found was that Our Sarah is every bit their story as it is the story of their daughter and sister. The quotations they use to open each chapter provide evidence of that; while they highlight words that she has spoken, they also highlight their own. I grew to understand them more through the things they experienced–some joyful, some quite painful. Chuck, Sr., in particular, gives a heartwarming depiction of his upbringing and the regrets with which he’s had to live. Palin refers to her brother, Chuck, Jr., in Going Rogue as “all boy.” The sense of adventure he inherited from his father is evident in Our Sarah, as he continues to enjoy activities that he enjoyed as a youngster. By allowing readers to view them so intimately, they provide a closer view of Sarah. No doubt, both father and son would tell us she has impacted their lives, as she has the lives of many, but through the experiences they detail, it is obvious that she is who she is, in large part, because they are who they are.
In Our Sarah, Chuck, Sr. and Chuck, Jr. give us a look into a family that worked hard, played hard, and loved hard, with details of each. Their portrayal of both Sarah Heath and, later, Sarah Palin confirm the belief that, should she ever choose to do so, she could walk away from political life, remain in Alaska, and be every bit as happy. Alaska is in her, just as the lessons she’s been taught there, through the lifestyle she’s received there, are in her. She doesn’t need the national stage, but it has managed to get in her as well. She chooses to live the life she lives–not out of a need to be center stage, but out of a desire to make a difference. The authors inform the readers that even at a young age, big things seemed to be on the horizon for Sarah, and they tell us of people who, during the course of her upbringing, recognized her as someone “special,” someone who just had a certain “something,” and someone whose destiny called for greatness. They don’t belabor the point, but it’s certainly there.
Our Sarah took me through the full gamut of emotions. In the span of neighboring pages, I found myself seething with anger, laughing uproariously, and weeping uncontrollably. I was riveted while reading just how close death was at different times, and moved at how far away answers to life’s biggest questions sometimes were. I saw the frustration of both a protective brother, as he realized that there were battles he could not fight for his younger sister or shield her from, and a dad, as he observed his daughter so viciously wronged. Sarah’s brother and father show us their lives and her life, so ordinary that as I read of their regrets, challenges, and questions, I thought of my own. Though we’re all so very different in background and experiences, it’s all quite familiar. The range of emotions, therefore, is only natural. Readers who have fixated on how different they are from Palin should be prepared to come away realizing something else altogether.
Sarah Palin’s father, whose love for the great outdoors took him and his growing family to the Last Frontier, was eager to find rewarding work, satisfying adventures, and robust competition. Their family of athletes learned to push themselves to the limits, and they reaped the rewards of perseverance and hard work. As I turned the pages of Our Sarah: Made in Alaska, I became increasingly aware that Palin did not arrive at such heights of personal and professional achievement by accident.
Chuck, Sr. and Jr. show us how Sarah grew up with a competitive spirit, a stubborn streak, and dogged determination. Concerning sports, it was tenacity, not just talent, that brought her the success she enjoyed. She refused to give up. This didn’t dissipate as she got older and faced bigger challenges. She enjoyed greater successes with seemingly insurmountable odds. Her own self-determination and hard work, coupled with her ability to garner the support of others, propelled her into a career of public service that eventually propelled her onto the national stage. Her faith in God, though it was misrepresented and ridiculed on the campaign trail, remain at the forefront of her life, something she inherited from her mother, Sally. And this is the first time, at least as far as I know, that Chuck, Sr. opens up about faith, as he transparently tells of the impact of God and church on his wife and children.
Never before have I read a book that so passionately details the events of a life that it made me want a do-over. These authors stirred that within me. As I read, I began to feel that I had been cheated as a child. An upbringing in the cold wild of Alaska is not what I’m talking about. Snowmachining, hunting, and hiking sound wonderful, but that’s not what I’m talking about, either. What the authors manage to do is adequately describe how they view the world around them, which they see in a way that I could not fathom as a child. Admiring mountains and lakes and the history contained in them never dawned on me when I was a kid. Getting up before school and hunting was certainly not something I ever did. Neither did it ever cross my mind that others were doing it. Even as a youngster of faith, I never led a group of my peers at school in prayer. Reading their details of this kind of life, the kind that Sarah enjoyed, made me wish I could go back and do it again, do childhood again, and do it the Heath way this time–with the adventures, the expectations to work, and the deep family bonds.
Granted, it wasn’t all fun and games in their family. There were hardships, too. There were risks, estrangement, discovering dead bodies–and almost becoming one. But their account of their upbringing sounds like truly living to me. Their book makes me want to love deeper, dream bigger, and run faster–literally and figuratively. I already knew much of Sarah Palin’s fascinating life story, and I didn’t think there was room to grow in my respect for her, but this intimate look, through the distinct perspectives of two of the closest people in her life, made me respect and admire her all the more. I do not know if that was the authors’ intent, but they certainly accomplished as much.
Of course, Chuck, Sr. and Chuck, Jr. take us through the 2008 vice presidential candidacy. Where were they when they learned she was Senator McCain’s running mate? Did she ever drop a hint before then? What stood out at the start of her RNC speech? These answers are all in Our Sarah, along with deeper things like what causes resentment to build in a father and what causes it to melt like the snow at the end of an Alaska winter. Turning pages, I recognize names of people in the grassroots and blogosphere who have made an impact on Sarah and her family, promote her cause, and continue to provide support since the 2008 election, and I am reminded that she, like they, never forget even the little people who help along the way.
Our Sarah helped me understand the humility that Palin exemplifies, as well, in spite of her fame and success. Chuck, Jr., having been a gifted football player, relates one of his favorite lessons from his father: “When you get to the end zone, act like you’ve been there before.” Sarah epitomizes that type of grace. Never one to toot her own horn, you get the distinct impression that she takes everything that has occurred, particularly since 2008, in stride–the instant celebrity, the fortune, the opportunities. She’s made it into the end zone, but she never spikes the ball. She acts like she’s been there before. She acts like she belongs. Through the stories relayed by her father and brother, we see that she has been there and she does belong. With every early morning hunt, every basketball practice, every mile run, every child born, every sign-waving gathering, every campaign, and every speech she stepped into that end zone, and she learned how to handle it well because of her character, which was carved out of those lessons taught, people encountered, and experiences lived.
Our Sarah: Made in Alaska lives up to its promise as an intimate look into the various adventures, challenges, and influences in the life of Sarah Palin. I couldn’t put the book down. It inspired me, it fed my curiosity, and it left me wanting more. Glancing at the cover, before reading a word, I sensed the aura of family, home, and love that I also found waiting once I opened the book and began reading. Chuck, Jr. is not pictured on the cover, which I admit I find a questionable publisher’s decision for a book that pictures both his co-author and his subject. However, on the cover or not, Chuck, Jr. is very much present within the pages of the book, as is his father, and, of course, as is his sister. The more I read, the more I connected with Sarah Palin and her family. The more pages I turned, the more deeply I understood who she is, not through the ill-intentioned–or even well-meaning–words of someone who doesn’t really know her, but through the words of two people who have known her all her life and whose book has helped to make their Sarah our Sarah as well.
Our Sarah: Made in Alaska will be released on September 25, 2012.