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Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

pilgrims wilderness

A True Story of Innocence and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

This is narrative nonfiction at its finest and one man at his darkest.

In January of 2002 some strangers drove into McCarthy, Alaska and decided to call it home. Getting to that small town (pop. 42 according to the 2000 census)  in the middle of winter would have been difficult for all but the hearty, but Papa Pilgrim managed it with some of his boys and eventually, the rest of his family was able to join him as well, all fifteen kids and his lovely wife, Country Rose. That’s right, fifteen kids.

The residents were a might leery of strangers, but respected a man’s right to live his life and raise his family as he saw fit. It is the Alaskan way after all and besides Pilgrim told them, ““All we want is a place to live our old-time way and be left in peace.” It would be fine.

It wasn’t and would have repercussions for everyone that got involved, some even from the lower 48 states. I could tell you more, but that would be spoiling it.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness fascinated me for so many reasons.

  1. The picture of Alaska and Alaskans painted by Kizzia was beautiful and almost otherworldly in its last frontier-ness. Denali has always been on my mental list for climbing, but this made me want to see all of the state’s grandeur and people by hopping  on a plane right then and there.
  2. The Pilgrim Family’s faith made me uncomfortable and that made me keep reading in hope that I would learn that they had received some sort of comeuppance. Not that I have anything against faith per se, it’s just that anything that you believe so strongly that you have a great number of kids and move them all to the farthest reaches in isolation….I can’t grasp.
  3. Papa Pilgrim, AKA Bob Hale, had so many interesting connections in his life. They were all on the outskirts, but it shocked me that someone that had such an “alternative” lifestyle could have them. His dad was a high ranking FBI agent and Papa’s first wife was the daughter of John Connolly, the man that was also shot when JFK was assassinated, for example.
  4. Kizzia is a reporter and not only did his work seem utterly balanced, but his choice of the narrative style worked so well for me. Like Erik Larson, his work reminds me of a snowball rolling on down the hill, gathering scope and speed as it careens to a finish.

So engrossed in the book that I was gobsmacked to see it was 3 AM when I finished. I hadn’t been tired, hadn’t noticed the world around me go silent, I just lost time while reading. That hasn’t happened since I was oh…in high school, I think.

 

So, I gave you 4 great reasons and a bonus as to why you should pick up the book, what are you waiting for? Even better, anyone up for a road trip to Alaska?

Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Innocence and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (July 16, 2013)
  • ISBN-10: 0307587827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307587824

Check out the interview with Tom Kizzia at the NYT

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  • Sigrid Fry-Revere

    This sounds amazing. I lived in Alaska for a while so I’m really excited to read it.

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