Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

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Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in this riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wildernessand 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 ...

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Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

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Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in this riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wildernessand 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
#5 on Amazon's Best 100 Books of the Year
A Mother Jones Best Book of the Year
An Outside Best Adventure Book of the Year

“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.”
—Arts Beat, New York Times

“With even reporting and spare, lovely prose, Kizzia exposes the tyrannies of faith, and a family’s desperate unraveling. It will make your skin crawl.” The Daily Beast

“For those awaiting the next Jon Krakauer-esque classic, look to an Alaskan writer named Tom Kizzia... A gripping nonfiction thriller told with masterful clarity...I’m betting it will be the sleeper hit of the summer. Put it at the top of your stack.” Outside Magazine

“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

“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

“Absorbing...The family’s brutal unraveling is a shocking tale readers won’t soon forget.” Seattle 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

“The mixture of Texas weirdness with Alaska nativism provides for riveting reading...Kizzia expertly goes back and forth in time to reveal the details of Papa Pilgrim's journey from would-be messiah to pariah.” Austin American Statesman

“As the Pilgrims go from activists championed by Sarah Palin to musicians beloved by Portland hipsters to a horrifying fall from grace, Kizzia’s clear-eyed depiction never wavers. His even-handed and, at times, sympathetic treatment of the Pilgrims makes the full reveal of Hale’s monstrous behavior that much more appalling—and the tale of redemption that ends the book that much more heart-wrenching.” Metropulse

“A riveting read.” Texas Monthly

“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.”

“The riveting story of a megalomaniacal sociopath who left a trail of woe from Texas to the Great White North, Pilgrim’s Wilderness lends credence to the maxim that the unadulterated truth, when conveyed with sufficient skill, is not only more illuminating than fiction, but also more entertaining. Tom Kizzia has written an uncommonly insightful book about post-frontier Alaska, an ambitious literary work disguised as a page-turner, very much in the tradition of Edward Hoagland’s Notes From the Century Before and John McPhee’s Coming into the Country.” —Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven

“This is a riveting, mesmerizing story, stunning and eloquent all at the same time.  I simply couldn't put it down.” —Ken Burns, filmmaker, The Civil War and The National Parks: America's Best Idea

“Tom Kizzia's superb book is startling, unpredictable, haunting, clear-eyed, unrelenting, sad, and beautiful.  Pilgrim's Wilderness, in other words, is like Alaska itself, a subject the author understands deeply and evokes with uncommon skill.” —David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered and They Marched into Sunlight

“What an epic story—sociopathy and crazy ideology hits the final frontier.  Jon Krakauer couldn’t have done it any better.” —Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth and Deep Economy

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a fine book, methodically narrating a tale of libertarianism gone haywire on a genuine frontier.” —Edward Hoagland, author of Children Are Diamonds

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a terrifying masterpiece, elegantly written, painstakingly researched, and impossible to put down.  Tom Kizzia has created a classic American Gothic, chilling, irresistible and wise.” —Blaine Harden, author of Escape from Camp 14

“Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a bizarre and twisted Alaska saga of mythic proportions. This nonfiction gem has ‘Hollywood hit’ written all over it. Once you start reading, you won’t be able to put it down.” —Douglas Brinkley, author of The Quiet World

“There isn't a bad sentence in Pilgrim’s Wilderness, not a dull page or sour note.  A masterpiece of reporting and storytelling.” —Zev Chafets, author of Cooperstown Confidential and A Match Made in Heaven

“The bizarre and tragic true story that unfolds in the pages of this extraordinary book is like nothing else I have ever read.  Through prodigious research, blending compassion with investigative skill, Tom Kizzia has woven a mythic tale out of that most mythic of American landscapes – Alaska.” —David Roberts, author of Alone on the Ice

“Tom Kizzia hasn't just observed and written about Alaska for three-plus decades, he's lived it.  Pilgrim's Wilderness is a story that needed to be told by the only man who could tell it.” —Tom Bodett, author of Williwaw! and The End of the Road

“Alaska as a land of self-invention and frontier contradictions has never been better captured than in Pilgrim’s Wilderness.  Tom Kizzia, “Neighbor Tom” to the enigmatic figure at the center of this riveting story, combines an insider’s view with thorough and compassionate investigative reporting.  This fascinating, harrowing, ultimately redemptive, and beautifully written account is sure to become a classic.” —Nancy Lord, former Alaska Writer Laureate and author of Fish Camp, Beluga Days and Early Warming

“In Pilgrim's Wilderness Tom Kizzia uncovers the tragic confrontation between America's frontier past and its settled future. 'The Last Frontier' is the hot bed and Alaskans probably the most divided and conflicted of all. Mix this with the attraction that frontiers have for the unstable, darker forces in the human personality and we get the startling case of Papa Pilgrim and his family, as well as a hell of a yarn.” —Carl Pope, former executive director of The Sierra Club and author of Strategic Ignorance

“A stunning and downright scary tale by one of Alaska's most knowledgeable journalists.  Tom Kizzia's investigative talents and his love of America's frontier state come through clearly in this true story that reads like a novel.” —James Risser, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting

“Pilgrim’s Wilderness is not a book—it’s a powerful magnet, and once you begin you will not be able to pull yourself away. This spellbinding, shocking, and, yes, inspirational story of a family’s journey into the heart of darkness delivers the raw power and revelatory truth of a Scorcese film. Except better, because every word is true.”
—Daniel Coyle,author of The Secret Race and The Talent Code.

Publishers Weekly
In 2002, when the Pilgrim family, a curious group that included a husband and wife and 14 children, showed up in remote McCarthy, Ala., and homesteaded in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, their pioneer spirit, independent nature, religious piety, and throwback ideals were embraced by the frontier community. When the family got into a legal battle with the National Park Service, many Alaskans who bristled at the government’s perceived infringement on landowners’ rights came to the family’s aid. But when journalist Kizzia (The Wake of the Unseen Object) started digging into the Pilgrims’’ past—especially that of the father, Papa Pilgrim (aka Bobby Hale)—for the Anchorage Daily News, he uncovered a bizarre saga. Following Hale’s journey from Texas to Alaska, which included stops in Florida, California, Oregon, and New Mexico—and names like John F. Kennedy, Jack Nicholson, J. Edgar Hoover, and Texas Governor John Connally—Kizzia discovers cracks in the paradisiac image the Pilgrim’s presented to the public. Though it takes a little while for him to set up the story, once Papa Pilgrim’s dark secrets start to become exposed (there are battles between the National Park Service, the government and various small towns), the author 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. Agent: Alice Martell, the Martell Agency. B&w photos. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
A journalist's gripping account of a modern fundamentalist Christian pioneer family and the dark secrets that held it together. Robert "Papa Pilgrim" Hale, his wife and 15 children came to the remote little town of McCarthy, Alaska, convinced that it was God's will they settle there. Claiming that he and his family wanted nothing more than "to live our old-time way and be left in peace," Pilgrim bought privately owned acreage that happened to be surrounded by lands managed by the National Park Service. McCarthy residents fell in love with the idealistic, God-fearing family members and marveled at how they "could light up any space" with their idiosyncratic brand of American roots music. But when Papa Pilgrim decided to clear a road that ran on public land to the property he christened Hillbilly Heaven, residents became enmeshed in a bitter battle that ensued between their neighbors and the Park Service. On assignment from his newspaper, Kizzia (The Wake of the Unseen Object: Travels Through Alaska's Native Landscapes, 1998) successfully solicited the media-wary Pilgrim for an interview. What he learned--that Pilgrim was the son of a rich Texas family with links to the FBI--was only a small part of the whole story, which came out only after Pilgrim's eldest children ran away from home. The real Papa Pilgrim was a deluded megalomaniac who physically and emotionally brutalized his wife and children. He was also a sexual deviant who coerced his eldest daughter, Elishaba, "to keep his flesh working" so that he could bring forth the 21 children he believed God wanted him to have with Elishaba's mother. The horror at the heart of this story about religious extremism on the fringes of the last American frontier is slow to reveal itself, but when that horror fully emerges, it will swallow most readers. Provocative and disturbing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307587831
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/15/2014
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 127,564
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet 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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Read an Excerpt

Prologue:  Third Month

When the song of the snowmachine had faded down the valley, the sisters got ready to go.  Elishaba moved quickly through the morning cold and snow in heavy boots, insulated pants beneath her prairie skirt, ferrying provisions from the cabin - raisins, sleeping bags, two white sheets.   Jerusalem and Hosanna tore through the tool shed looking for a spark plug.  The plugs had been pulled from the old Ski-Doo Tundras that morning to prevent escape.

It was late in the third month and the days in Alaska were growing longer.  The overcast was high, the temperature holding above zero.  They knew they didn’t have much time. 

Mountains squeezed the sky above the old mining cabin.  Behind, a glacial cirque climbed to God’s white throne.  For weeks, Elishaba had been looking up, praying at the summits and calculating the odds.  But she knew there was only one way out.  The only trail, the one that had brought their family the attention they used to shun, ran thirteen miles down the canyon, slicing through avalanche zones and criss-crossing the frozen creek until it reached a ghost town. 

McCarthy was once a boom town of bootleggers and prostitutes.   These days it was the only place in the Wrangell Mountains that could still be called a community, though a mere handful of settlers remained all winter.  At first that isolation had been the attraction.  The Pilgrim Family had traveled thousands of miles to reach the end of the road in Alaska.  They had parked their trucks at the river and crossed a footbridge into town and continued on horseback and snowmachine and bulldozer and foot to their new home. 

Now McCarthy burned in the girls’ imaginations not as the end of the road but as a beginning.

Psalms and Lamb and Abraham looked on in horror.  Their big sisters weren’t even supposed to be speaking out loud.  They had been put on silence.  Yet here was Elishaba, calling out as she moved to and from the cabin, as if she no longer cared that they would report her.

Elishaba was the oldest of the fifteen brothers and sisters, a pretty, dark-eyed, dark-haired young woman, strong from a lifetime of homestead chores, from wrangling horses and hunting game - not a girl at all, at twenty-nine years, though she had never lived away from her family, never whispered secrets at a friend’s house or flirted with a boy.  She had been raised in isolation, sheltered from the evil world - no television, no newspapers, no books, schooled only in survival and a dark exegesis of God’s portents.  She was the special daughter, chosen according to the Bible’s solemn instruction.  Her legal name was Butterfly Sunstar. 

She gave the children a brave and reassuring smile.  They could see now that she was weeping and frightened and that she did indeed still care.  She cared about what would happen if she were caught.  She was pretty sure she would not survive her punishment.  But she also cared about how angry God might be if she succeeded and escaped into the world.   all her life she had been taught that leaving would be the most forbidden sin.  The punishment for that could turn out to be something infinitely worse.

Her sisters looked happy, though.  Hosanna had found a spark plug.  Perhaps their enterprise was favored after all.  Jerusalem - short, blond and cherub-cheeked, at sixteen the second-oldest girl - had declared she would not let Elishaba go alone. 
Elishaba and Jerusalem said swift goodbyes and climbed together on the little Tundra and lurched down the trail. 

They made it no farther than the open snow in the first muskeg swamp.  The snowmachine lurched to a stop.  The fanbelt had snapped.  Jerusalem used a wrench to pull the plug and started post-holing back up the frozen trail to the cabin.  Elishaba tried to mend the belt with wire and pliers but gave up. 

She looked about for an escape route.  The snow was too deep to flounder through, the trees too far away.  It felt like one of those dreams where she tried to run for her life and she couldn’t move.  She sat listening for the sound of a snowmachine returning up the valley from town.

Instead she heard Jerusalem coming on the other Tundra. 

They reloaded their gear and started off again.  A pinhole in the fuel line was spewing gasoline but if this too was a sign it went unseen.  They flew too fast around a curve and nearly hit a tree and slowed down. 

Jerusalem, holding on in back, started crying now too.  She was thinking about all they were leaving behind.  In modern Alaska, with its four-lane highways and shopping malls, her family was famous, recognized wherever they went.  People cheered when the Pilgrim Family Minstrels performed on stage.  They always made a beautiful picture.

The sisters prayed out loud.  Where the snow-packed trail turned uphill, they stopped and listened.  The world was heavy with silence.  They started again and worked hard climbing.  At the top they discovered the family’s other new snowmachine, hidden in trees too far from the cabin for anyone on foot to find it.  The sisters hesitated.  They talked about switching but the old Tundra was running well so they decided to continue but right there the engine died and that’s when they discovered the fuel leak.   Maybe the Lord was indeed helping them, they said.  They felt a surge of hope as they transferred their gear and continued on the third snowmachine.

There was so much about the world the sisters did not know.  Only lately had they realized how difficult the future would be because of this.  But there were things they knew about the world as it once was and these were skills they needed now.  Where the trail climbed over the riverbank, Elishaba veered away behind the snowy berm, so that someone coming the other way might not notice their track.  She drove into the spruce trees and shut down.  They could see the trail through the boughs.  The telltale smell of two-cycle exhaust lingered in the still cold air.  They pulled the two white sheets over themselves in the snow. 

The faint whine of a snowmachine, growing louder, was coming up the valley.


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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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 25 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 25 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2013

    I am writing this comment regarding Tom Kizzia¿s book, ¿ Pilg

    I am writing this comment regarding Tom Kizzia’s book, “ Pilgrim’s Wilderness” from the perspective of a direct family member. I believe this story of my Dad’s life should have died with him and not been encouraged to go on. My fear would be that his life encourages people to do the wrong thing. I lived this life with him and I believe it should never have been portrayed to the public like it has been done in this book. Though he was my father and I respect him for that role he did a lot of hurt to a lot of people, mainly his family. Is there a reason why the hurt has to be relived? The book is not what it appears to be on the front cover, one big happy family. I would be careful to not have your children read it. It’s content is to be equaled with X – rated material.  

    12 out of 17 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2013

    A Harrowing Frontier Tale of the Perverse Pilgrim Clan Kizzia,

    A Harrowing Frontier Tale of the Perverse Pilgrim Clan

    Kizzia, in this beautifully written piece of nonfiction, captures the essence of the perverse Pilgrim clan that has indelibly marked Alaska and it no doubt will be remembered in tales of mythic proportion. Papa Pilgrim along with his wife and fifteen children sold themselves as a moralistic pack of holy-rollers when they first moved to Alaska; however, that façade soon vanished.

    The family Patriarch, calling himself Papa Pilgrim, whose previous pregnant wife was found mysteriously shot in the head, had a less than upright past. After settling in McCarthy, Alaska, Papa Pilgrim decided to bulldoze a road into a state park and setup a meager one-room homestead there much to the government’s and neighbors’ dismay.

    In harmony with outward unrest that the Pilgrim homestead created, much was amiss within it. Pilgrim’s children were illiterate and sexually abused—many argue whether they were hostages or proud followers of their patriarch. In a land of seemingly endless frontier and self-invention, Papa Pilgrim pushed to the limits and ignited endless conflicts.

    Kizzia’s true account is one that captures the harrowing results of perverted libertarianism. A sense of place and landscape plays an integral role in this page-turner, as Alaska is in many ways a final frontier. If you enjoy true crime or tales of the more remote reaches of civilization, I recommend this book. Another engrossing account of life in the cold corners of the earth is Peter Freuchen’s Arctic Adventure, in which Freuchen details his assimilation into Inuit life and culture.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 22, 2013

    Want questions answered? Read this book!

    I remember reading some of the newspaper accounts back when the Pilgrim Family first came to McCarthy. Since I personally know some of the Hales, I always wondered how they found the courage to finally speak out against their father, and set their family free from his tyranny and abuse. This book does a great job of answering a lot of those questions. Good read!

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    Papa Pilgrim kept his family under close control by the use of

    Papa Pilgrim kept his family under close control by the use of his version of Christianity and violence, even incest. It is fascinating and frightening but it is hard to stop reading it. Alas, it is all true. If you like books like true crime novels; if you like reading outdoor adventure stories; then this book is for you. There is not a boring page to be found.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 31, 2013

    Well-written story of an extremely disturbing man who wields his

    Well-written story of an extremely disturbing man who wields his religion against his family and neighbors as it serves his purpose. It also serves to give the reader insight into the Alaska frontier mentality that served his evil purposes. 

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 24, 2013

    Recommended, especially for current and past Alaskans.

    I was living in Alaska when much of this story occurred and remember the emotions and opinions that were frequently expressed when Alaskans gathered. What a tragic life these children and their mother endured. How they survived is amazing and shows just how strong the human spirit is. The author did a good job of describing the Alaskan wilderness and the subsistence lifestyle that is embraced by many of the citizens there. The start was a little slow, and I had to plow through the back story, but the rest of the read was well worth the time.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Highly Recommended

    I was so impressed with this book and the research Tom Kizzia did for it that I sent the author a note via FaceBook. He was meticulous and so familiar with this part of Alaska and all the folks involved that even though it read almost like a page-turning novel, I knew it was a true story. This should be read by anyone interested in the psychology of families, and how a person could be so controlling and cruel to his own relatives. And how they accepted that as a way of life. It was amazing.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 10, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Truth is many times, much stranger than fiction. Very true in th

    Truth is many times, much stranger than fiction. Very true in the case of Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia.

    I've always thought that I was born too late - when I was younger, I often daydreamed of a cabin in the middle of the woods and self sufficiency. (Instead I got a job as a living history museum interpreter and played Little House in the Big Woods for many years.)

    When Papa Pilgrim showed up in the remote town of McCarthy, Alaska with his wife and fifteen children in tow, the residents, although initially wary of newcomers, welcomed them to their community. Pilgrim seemed to want nothing more than to live in peace and practice his Christian values on his newly purchased plot of land within the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

    Initially everyone enjoys the 'old-timey' nature of the family, their music and Christian values. But that original welcome soon starts to show cracks and eventually divides the town. Pilgrim decides to bulldoze a road through the park, the spark that ignites his 'war' with the National Park Service. The actions of the family don't always match the preaching done by Papa. Papa is a master manipulator, able to twist the scriptures to suit his purpose. And Papa? Well, he's twisted as well. The outward appearance of the family belies the terror he inflicts on his wife and children. (The children range from late twenties to a newborn.) Things escalate, not just with the NPS, but within the cabin housing the Pilgrims. The older children begin to question their lives, their faith and their Papa......

    Kizzia is an Alaskan journalist and covered the story as it unfolded. In Pilgrim's Wilderness, he has expanded on those articles with interviews from townsfolk, detractors and supporters, with Pilgrim himself and later with some other family members. He investigates, digs further and uncovers and exposes the man who was born Robert Hale. Again, truth is stranger that fiction - some of it just had me shaking my head in disbelief.

    Kizzia has a family cabin in McCarthy as well. His familiarity with the area and the issues truly enhanced his account. Although there are some disturbing (okay a lot disturbing) parts of the story, Kizzia handles it all in a fair and true manner, without delving into lurid or tabloid like descriptions.

    I was riveted from first page - Kizzia opens the book with a gut wrenching, white knuckle prologue -to last, caught up in the story of the madness that was Papa Pilgrim and the fate of his family. (And after the last page was turned - I headed to the computer to follow up) Pilgrim's Wilderness also explores the politics of land use, from many points of view.

    Pilgrim's Wilderness has been labeled true crime, not a genre I really like. However this book is an exception. Five stars for this reader.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2013


    This is $10.99 on Kindle and $12.99 here. Why, Barns & Nobel? It's that way on a number of your books. Wish I had bought a Kindle!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2013

    Balanced, well written, and distrurbing - highly recommend.

    This book is a well balanced look at environmental issues. The author gives both sides of the expanding role of govenment interference of land management. He allows the reader to decide. This well written book does focus on one very evil man who abused his family. Another excellent book is the histrical novel, "The Partisan," written by William Jarvis. It is currently only 99cents on the Nook right now. It ls based on true facts during World War II; it has strong male and female characters as well as a truly evil, abusive viiian. Both books are excellent and deserve A++++++

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2013

    Not mine

    If you are looking for an easy reading interesting book then save your money. Written more like someones diary. Mot for me at all. Never finished and probably never will.

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 20, 2014


    Wow. Very interesting. I couldn't put it down. Within 24 hrs I read it from the first page to the last. Very realistic description of how life could be like if everything went to h..l. the characters were well flushed out. The descriptions of the surroundings were so vivid I had a movie playing in my head the whole time. A great first novel for this author. I look forward to more.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2014


    Awnseres later.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 28, 2014


    Factual, fair account of a family's development from blind submission to their father's hypocritical authority to freedom to choose their own values. In their pursuit of a primitive lifestyle the Pilgrim family became the eye of a rising storm between the National Park Service and Alaskan landholders. This book will engage the reader on a psychological, religious, and a political level, affording much food for thought. It caused me to examine my personal growth from a wilderness hippie in the 70's to an assimilated teacher in mainstream society.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 16, 2013

    Great read, enjoyed the ending.

    I felt the book took a little while to get to the main plot of the story,yet it remained interesting throughout, and the ending was fitting for the story. Good book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    Great non-fiction!

    Interesting story of a man who was able to get his family and neighbors to believe in his religious beliefs, until it became violent for his wife and children.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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