Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

Publisher: Crown Publishing
Publication Date: July 2013
Categories: Nonfiction, Government, Religion, Alaska
The Pilgrim Family

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.

My Thoughts:

Tom Kizzia

It’s understandable that the people of McCarthy were taken in by this family at first. The music, the adorable children, the folksy home-spun style and Christianity would have endeared them to almost anyone. When the family thumbed their noses at the National Park Service they charmed people even more. They were in a place where conservative politics ruled and no one wanted to be told how to conduct themselves. 

It wasn’t long, however, before cracks appeared in the facade of this “perfect” family. The nose-thumbing at the government became a little extreme. Sides were taken, scathing articles were written, and the residents of McCarthy found themselves in the middle between the NPS and the Pilgrim family.

Tom Kizzia masterfully explores the bizarre history of Papa Pilgrim in this book. His love for the area is obvious and the time he spent with the people in this story is evident. Pilgrim’s Wilderness is fascinating, dark, and true. Once I started reading this I didn’t want to stop. 

Truth can be stranger than fiction. I don’t know if I’ve ever read another book that proved that old adage in quite the same way. 

20 thoughts on “Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

  1. I've never heard of this book, but it looks intriguing. I need to read more non-fiction so I may have to give this book a try.


  2. Did he actually go around calling himself Papa Pilgrim? Cause I feel like that should've been a giant red flag right there!People be crazy 😛


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