Book Review: Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story Of Faith And Madness On The Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia
Pilgrim’s Wilderness has been described as Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter. This true story of modern day homesteading in the Alaskan wilderness is a gripping tale that explores some dark and disturbing topics.
In the early 2000’s, Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and his 17 children headed north to find a place to live off the grid. They ended up buying an old mining claim within the boundaries of Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park near the frontier mining town of McCarthy, Alaska. The handful of local residents quickly embraced the eccentric family as their new neighbors. They had no idea what was coming.
The Pilgrim family was soon living the frontier life as National Park inholders. To improve access to his land, Papa Pilgrim, aka Robert Hale, bulldozed a road through park land that sparked a legal battle with the National Park Service and raised a national debate over citizen’s rights vs government power.
The legal battle slowly leads to the family’s demise. Readers soon learn about Hale’s dark past and how it drove him to madness. Hale had ties to the Kennedy assassination and was a former classmate of John Denver and Lee Harvey Oswald. He formerly homesteaded on Jack Nicholson’s land in New Mexico. His once pregnant, teenaged wife was mysteriously shot in the back of the head with a fingerprint free gun. There is no question that Hale had a bit of a bizarre life.
It turns out that the overtly religious Hale was a true master manipulator who used physical, mental, and sexual abuse to brainwash his entire family. Pilgrim’s Wilderness is the story of Hale’s rise to the religious patriarch of a large family, his battle with the government, and his eventual downfall in the Alaskan wilderness. It’s dark, engaging, and worth reading.
While I found this book gripping, it wasn’t quite as expected. Instead of exploring the life of a mad, government-hating eccentric living off the grid in Alaska, this book dove into the life of a cruel and evil man who did disturbing things. It’s a true tale that kept me turning the pages.
Tom Kizzia got the inside scoop on the Pilgrim family as an Alaskan journalist for the Anchorage Daily News. His writing style is superb and I would highly recommend anything he has written. Learn more about Tom Kizzia on his website.