Parts of this post originally appeared on Book Riot.
In 2002, Papa Pilgrim, a reclusive, ultra-religious family man, purchased a 420-acre mining area in the middle of an Alaskan state park. Ignoring the cautions of local park officials, Pilgrim bulldozed a 13-mile road through the park to the small town of McCarthy so that his wife and 14 children could get to their home.
At first, many of his rural neighbors sided with Pilgrim when the National Park Service came down on his little improvement project. As time passed, however, it became clear that life at the Pilgrim family compound was not as rosy as it appeared. In Pilgrim’s Wilderness, journalist Tom Kizza reveals the story of a charismatic outlaw and his eventual feud with his neighbors, the government and his own family.
The blurb for Pilgrim’s Wilderness described the book as a mix between Into the Wild and Helter Skelter, which were comparisons that I couldn’t ignore — I’m a total sucker for oddball true crime books, especially those written by journalists. The setting of the book, the very edge of one of the final frontiers of America, was another appealing piece of this story.
Although the ultimate reveal of Pilgrim as a physically, mentally and sexually abusive psychopath is what makes this book scandalous, there’s also a ton of interesting back and forth about property rights and life at the edge of the frontier. I was fascinated by the tension that arose between the government and the citizens of McCarthy over issues of resources and private property. In some ways, I wish that the central antagonist, Papa Pilgrim, hadn’t turned out to be such crazy dude because it distracts from that conflict. But I’m a government nerd, so of course I’d think that.
The story of how Pilgrim’s children, especially his oldest daughter, finally escape from him is incredibly brave. I can’t even imagine their lives, although Kizzia does an amazing job setting the stage and telling their stories sympathetically and honestly. If you like true crime and can handle a story about a major sociopath, then Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a book you’ll want to pick up.