After one local Republican delivers 90 minutes of uninterrupted praise for Palin, I ask whom else I should talk to, and the answer comes so fast it’s like a cry for help—which is how, the next day, I end up in the living room of Colleen Cottle, who is the matriarch of one of Wasilla’s oldest families, and who served on the city council when Palin was mayor. She says she and her husband, Rodney, will pay a price for speaking candidly about Palin. Their son is one of Todd Palin’s best friends. “But it is time for people to start telling the truth,” Colleen says. She describes the frustrations of trying to do city business with a mayor who “had no attention span—with Sarah it was always ‘What’s the flavor of the day?’ ”; who was unable to take part meaningfully in conversations about budgets because she “does not understand math or accounting—she only knows buzzwords, like ‘balanced budget’ ”; and who clocked out after four hours on most days, delegating her duties to an aide—“but he’ll never talk to you, because he has a state job and doesn’t want to lose it.” This type of conversation is repeated so often that Wasilla starts to feel like something from The Twilight Zone or a Shirley Jackson short story—a place populated entirely by abuse survivors.

To appreciate how alien Palin has become in Wasilla, how inscrutable to her own people, you have to wrap your mind around the fact that Sarah Palin is more famous than any other Alaskan, ever, and to remember that mass-media fame is a property of “outside.” It still does not quite seem real to most Alaskans that there are all these thousands of people in the Lower 48 turning out for … Sarah. It seems all the more unreal because Palin’s image as an engaging, down-to-earth small-town hockey mom was more or less accurate until two years ago. To be sure, some elements of that image were never true to life. “This whole hunter thing, for Sarah? That is the biggest fallacy,” says one longtime friend of the family.
“That woman has never hunted. The picture of her with the caribou she says she shot? She got out of the R.V. to pose for a picture. She never helps with the fishing either. It’s all a joke.” The friend goes on to recall that when Greta Van Susteren came to the house to interview Palin “[Sarah] cooked moose chili and whatnot. Todd was calling everyone he knew the day before—‘Do you got any moose?’ Desperate.”