Friday, November 8, 2013

Pilgrim's Wilderness - Tom Kizzia

A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier
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. See for yourself - Read an excerpt of Pilgrim's Wilderness.


bermudaonion said...

I listened to this and enjoyed it but not quite as much as you did. I think the narrator was part of the reason.

Luanne said...

A reader can make or break a book for sure Kathy.