When Papa Pilgrim appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy with his wife and fifteen children in tow, his new neighbors had little idea of the trouble to come. Read more...
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When Papa Pilgrim appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy with his wife and fifteen children in tow, his new neighbors had little idea of the trouble to come. The Pilgrim Family presented themselves as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal, with their proud piety and beautiful old-timey music, but their true story ran dark and deep. Within weeks, Papa had bulldozed a road through the mountains to the new family home at an abandoned copper mine, sparking a tense confrontation with the National Park Service and forcing his ghost town neighbors to take sides in an ever-more volatile battle over where a citizen's rights end and the government's power begins.
In "Pilgrim's Wilderness," veteran Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia unfolds the remarkable, at times harrowing, story of a charismatic spinner of American myths who was not what he seemed, the townspeople caught in his thrall, and the family he brought to the brink of ruin. As Kizzia discovered, Papa Pilgrim was in fact the son of a rich Texas family with ties to Hoover's FBI and strange, oblique connections to the Kennedy assassination and the movie stars of "Easy Rider." And as his fight with the government in Alaska 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, 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.
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.