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Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontierby Tom Kizzia
Tom Kizzia's Pilgrim's Wilderness is a riveting blend of true crime and environmental studies set in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in remote Alaska. In 2002 a bearded stranger and his wife and fourteen children arrived in McCarthy, Alaska, to claim in a deserted mining camp deep in the wilderness, and proceeded to blaze roads and trails in defiance of the National Park Service. At first viewed sympathetically by their neighbors as antigovernment activists, relations soured as Papa Pilgrim's paranoia, religiosity, and violent temper intensified. Adding to the strangeness were signs of turmoil in the Pilgrim family, leading outsiders to question whether the loving band of God-fearing musicians and pioneers was actually a group of children held hostage by a predatory and psychotic father. A neighbor of the Pilgrims, Kizzia tells the story of the Pilgrim family with empathy, precision, and no small amount of horror at his proximity to madness.
Synopses & Reviews
Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in this riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness — and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch.
When Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and their fifteen children appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy, their new neighbors saw them as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal. But behind the family's proud piety and beautiful old-timey music lay Pilgrim's dark past: his strange connection to the Kennedy assassination and a trail of chaos and anguish that followed him from Dallas and New Mexico. Pilgrim soon sparked a tense confrontation with the National Park Service fiercely dividing the community over where a citizen’s rights end and the government’s power begins. As the battle grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his children were messianic followers or hostages in desperate need of rescue.
In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and high drama, veteran Alaska journalist, Tom Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture an era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers ignited by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and a family captive.
“Extraordinary...Mr. Kizzia has done an outstanding job unpacking Pilgrim's story; the book is superbly researched, the writing clear and unflinching.” Wall Street Journal
“Pilgrim's Wilderness is measured, painstakingly reported and gripping, giving us a true look at an escapist nightmare in America's mythic and fading frontier.” Los Angeles Times
“Not since The Shining has family life off the grid seemed as terrifying as it does in Pilgrim’s Wilderness, by Tom Kizzia, but this time the chills come from nonfiction.” New York Times
“The central figure in this book crosses paths with an incredible constellation of the famous and notorious and becomes a sort of evil, Alaskan Forrest Gump...an irresistible page-turner.” Dallas Morning News
“Kizzia is a smart, tough reporter who knows a good story when he sees one and doesn't let go...[Pilgrim’s Wilderness] is a masterful book. One of its strengths is that by sticking to the story and not trying to do too much, it does just about everything. Another is the way Kizzia withholds information until the right moment, building suspense by staying with a linear narrative that gradually reveals the monster at the center.” Portland Oregonian
“Sends readers on a roller-coaster ride that is as thrilling as it is shocking. Kizzia’s work is a testament to both the cruelty and resiliency of the human spirit, capturing the sort of life-and-death struggle that can only occur on the fringes of modern-day civilization.” Publishers Weekly
“Meticulously researched, Pilgrim’s Wilderness is an absorbing and substantive education on America’s Last Frontier encased in a blood-pumping, nightmarish family drama as brutal as the wilderness itself. Kizzia writes of Alaska with the affection and steadiness of a weathered travel guide — the kind who knows the best route in. And the best route out.” Kirkus Reviews
“Strong work of reportage...[Papa Pilgrim's] intriguing past crumbles in comparison to his excruciating cruelty and to the inspiring grace and strength of his children.” Booklist
“Reads like a bewitching, brilliant novel....Even in the hands of a mediocre writer, this story would be mesmerizing. But Kizzia’s gifts as a journalist and writer are such that it is a powerhouse of a book, destined to become a wilderness-tale classic like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. On one level, it’s a brilliant exploration of the kinds of frontier issues that most of America put away more than 100 years ago — rugged individualism vs. community cooperation and compromise, and wilderness harnessers vs. preservationists. But most and best of all, it is the story of how a pack of illiterate, brainwashed children came to realize that the man they looked up to as a god was actually a tyrant, and how they found the courage to break free. Here’s to them, and to Kizzia for telling their incredible story.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
About the Author
TOM KIZZIA has traveled widely in rural Alaska for the Anchorage Daily News, and his work has appeared in the Washington Post and been featured on CNN. His first book, The Wake of the Unseen Object, was named one of the best all-time nonfiction books about Alaska by the state’s historical society. He lives in Homer, Alaska.
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