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A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

Written by Tom KizziaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Tom Kizzia



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On Sale: July 16, 2013
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-58784-8
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

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.
 
 

           
Tom Kizzia

About Tom Kizzia

Tom Kizzia - Pilgrim's Wilderness

Photo © Don Pitcher

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.
Praise

Praise

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
#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.”
Booklist

“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.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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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