June 13, 2013

Pilgrim’s Wilderness

By Tom Kizzia
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Rural Alaska seemed like the perfect place for a family of Christian homesteaders to escape the ways of the world. But when Papa Pilgrim moved his wife and 15 kids to McCarthy, they brought conflict and confrontation the likes of which the area had never seen. Initially embraced as exemplars of the libertarian ideal, the family turned out to be a dangerous sham, ruled by an evil patriarch. Pilgrim’s Wilderness unravels this drama with journalistic precision and the wallop of a true-crime potboiler.

Longtime Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia had a cabin near the first Pilgrim family settlement; when he covered their initial skirmish with the National Park Service, Papa called him “Neighbor Tom.” But Kizzia’s research into Pilgrim’s past revealed him to be a master of reinvention with much to conceal. The community split into pro-Pilgrim and anti-Pilgrim camps, with many wondering about the powerful control Pilgrim exercised over his wife and children. When the older kids made a run for safety and the truth came out, it was far worse than anyone could have imagined.

Kizzia is able to capture all this with the dispassionate voice of a reporter, which allows the chilling details to resonate powerfully. For all the horrors visited upon Pilgrim’s children, the story has a suitably twisted happy ending as the family gathers once more in a Wasilla cemetery, wishing their deceased patriarch swift passage to hell. Pilgrim’s Wilderness is fascinating and hard to put down—an excellent choice for those who like their beach reading on the darker side.

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