BOOK REVIEW by Doug Wead
Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far
By Bristol Palin
William Morrow, 272 pages
Bristol Palin’s new book, “Not Afraid of Life,” opens at 100 mph and never slows down. Everything the title promises is is an intimathere. This is the insider, unabashed account of life in the Palin family. This is a teenager’s almost innocent portrayal of her sudden rise to fame and the people she encounters along the way.
There are plenty of rough edges that can be used to justify the feelings of fans or foes alike, which adds to the surprise and frankness of this story. It keeps you turning the pages. And it keep you believing the narrative. Who would ever make this stuff up? And for what possible purpose?
Bristol begins with a chilling account of what can only be defined as date rape, although she is careful not to make that accusation. It is a cautionary tale of deceiving her mother, joining a rowdy group of friends for a camping trip, getting drunk and waking up to learn that she has lost her virginity. This unexpected opening signals the reader that what they think they know about the Palins is far less interesting than the truth they are about to hear. There is more to the story, and Bristol Palin is not afraid to tell it.
Some things happen as expected. Sarah Palin, the governor and vice-presidential nominee and Bristol’s mother, comes through looking pristine in this account. There is no “Mommie Dearest” going on here, no Patti Davis working out her issues with mother Nancy Reagan, saying to readers openly what couldn’t be said face to face in private. The father lives up to his public portrayal as a solid, silent man of strength. But while Bristol clearly loves her family and makes Wasilla, Alaska, sound like a spot of Norman Rockwell wonder, she is disarmingly honest about the snobs she encounters on the trail to stardom.
The McCains come off looking positively Brahmin, self-centered and arrogant. All the more so because Bristol isn’t trying too hard. Meghan McCain, daughter of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, seems panicky at the thought of any competition. Even Bristol’s existence seems threatening. Cindy McCain comes off as fake. And the McCain political handlers make Karl Rove look, well, kind of sweet. If nothing else, good Republicans will come away from Bristol’s book less wounded by the election of Barack Obama and the collapse of the American economy.
Bristol Palin is the real heroine of this tale, and not because she promotes herself. Indeed, if she did, it wouldn’t work. One wonders if Nancy French, her co-writer, helped offer that perspective. It is often what she doesn’t say, the absence of bitterness or playing the blame game that makes her a likable storyteller. She is so vulnerable, so quick to assume responsibility for her own actions that the reader will find it hard not to start rooting her on.
Bristol Palin’s baby, Tripp, and her faith and family are interweaving threads throughout the story. Although the relationship arguably began with a rape, Bristol never considers abortion, just as her mother rejected abortion and gave birth to a Down syndrome baby and poured out her love on the child. The names are even mimicked. Trigg is Sarah Palin’s “special” baby, Tripp is Bristol’s. And behind it all is their faith, which is an endless source of strength for them in the middle of their trial by a liberal media.
One gets a sense of that trial, too. How hated the Palins are. What it is like inside the tornado. Peaceful, actually. The winds raging all around them. To be sure, the national media is unforgiving. For one frightening, terrifying week, Sarah Palin posed a threat to their historical narrative of electing an urbane African-American as president. For having perpetrated that scare upon the noble elect, this family will be hounded to the grave.
Much of Bristol’s disillusionment is reserved for Hollywood, which in this case might be defined as any geographical place outside of Wasilla. Even Arizona is close to Hollywood, when you live in Alaska. Here she details the story of her rise to television fame as a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”
The thing she learns in Hollywood is that people are insincere. They are manipulative. They say and do things for selfish reasons. The world is so, well, so “unwasillafied,” that this poor teenager is appalled.
Aren’t there any real Christians here? By this time, you are drawn in by her innocence and asking yourself the same questions. Why are people so bad outside of Wasilla? Who would ever want to leave?
Forget “Dancing With the Stars.” Hey, forget a New York Times best-selling book, for that matter. And then you remember: the lie to mom, the camping trip with the rowdy friends and the alcohol and the sexual assault in the night. That was Wasilla too, not Hollywood. All of the media pain brought with it glory and millions of fans. And Bristol somehow figures that out and concludes she is “Not Afraid of Life.” Go, girl.
• Doug Wead is a New York Times best-selling author and former adviser to two presidents.
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