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 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. Recommended By Happy Bookseller, Powells.com
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Residents of McCarthy express nostalgia for life before the national park, before government rangers and extensive rules about bulldozers and cabin living. Do you think those old freedoms are worth preserving? What is the appropriate balance to strike between allowing pioneers the opportunity to follow their dreams and preserving nature in a pristine state, and between the rights of the individual and the interests of future generations?
2. McCarthy residents—even more than other Alaskans—tend to think of themselves as idealists pursuing off-the-grid lifestyles. Evil, when it comes, invades from the outside world. But the remote end-of-the-road community seemed to attract troubled, unstable individuals. Do you think the appearance of people like the mail-day murderer and the Pilgrim Family reveals something essential about McCarthy?
3. Do you think the abuse present in this book could have taken place anywhere, in a city apartment or on a quiet suburban street?
4. Once he left Texas, Robert Hale chose to raise his family on horseback in a rural setting amid the trappings of the Old West. How did it benefit Papa Pilgrim to deploy the mythology of the frontier as he did?
5. Robert Hale’s sons don’t believe he killed Kathleen Connally because, they say, he would have confessed to such a sin during his early devout days as a Christian. The Alaska prosecutor noted that such a confession could send a man to prison. Given the available evidence, do you think the death of his teenage bride was an accident?
6. The narrative doesn’t progress chronologically, from Bob Hale’s boyhood in Texas through New Mexico to Alaska. Instead, two story lines proceed in parallel for the first half of the book. Why do you think the author structured the story as he did?
7. What role did music play in the lives of the Pilgrim Family?
8. The Pilgrim children were denied access to movies and books. Why did Papa Pilgrim allow a single book, the seventeenth-century allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, in their home? Do you think there is an innate need for stories in our lives? How have the children used the Bible’s stoies to explain their imprisonment and recovery?
9. How do you feel about the descriptions of abuse in the family? The author remains fairly dispassionate in tone and borrows some of the family’s biblical euphemisms to depict the horrors unfolding. Is understatement an effective way to describe trauma, or does it leave you wanting to know more detail?
10. At one point, the children’s mother, Country Rose, was forced to hold her sons’ hands as they were strapped to the whipping barrel and lashed. Is Country Rose another victim of Papa’s, or should she have done more to protect her children? What about the older sons? Were they wrong not to report whatever abuse they witnessed?
11. What about Elishaba? Should she have spoken up to her siblings, or to state authorities, rather than try to handle everything herself? Why would anyone remain in such an abusive situation?
12. Why do you think Papa Pilgrim precipitated a war with the National Park Service so quickly? How did he benefit from external conflict?
13. At one point, the Park Service planned to send forty-three personnel to investigate the Pilgrim Family’s actions in the park, including an armed SWAT team to guard forensic biologists. Even after backing off, the government spent at least a half-million dollars on its response. Was this an effective way to deal with the situation? The family’s defenders felt the government wanted to make an example of these “last pioneers” to establish their primacy in the mountains. Do you agree?
14. The author switches to first person to tell part of the story. Does this weaken the omniscient voice used elsewhere, or strengthen it? What does the author’s personal story say about the pioneering legacy that motivates so many characters in the book?
15. In many ways, the views of the Buckinghams were as rigidly fundamentalist and patriarchal as those professed by Papa Pilgrim. What was the difference between the two families? Could a non-Christian family have intervened and played the same role as rescuers?
16. If the Buckinghams hadn’t entered the story, was there another way out for the Pilgrim children? What do you think might have happened?