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Review: ‘Pilgrim’s Wilderness’ by Tom Kizzia

Review: ‘Pilgrim’s Wilderness’ by Tom Kizzia post image

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.

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  • Sandy September 12, 2013, 6:06 am

    This is exactly the type of thing I love to read. I’m sure I’d get all fired up and angry at this asshat, but I love a good old fashioned true story, especially if everything is a big hot mess.

    • Kim September 15, 2013, 5:10 pm

      Oh totally, I was super mad and disgusted with him!

  • Julie Merilatt September 12, 2013, 7:04 am

    Ooooh, I am so adding this to my wish list.

  • Alise September 12, 2013, 9:11 am

    This sounds fascinating! I read Helter Skelter earlier this year and it was so twisted – really interesting though. I’m definitely putting this one on my to-read list.

    • Kim September 15, 2013, 5:11 pm

      I’ve never read Helter Skelter, but I know enough about it to see where the comparison is coming from.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) September 12, 2013, 9:48 am

    I really liked this book too – boy, was Papa Pilgrim a piece of work!

  • Shannon @ River City Reading September 12, 2013, 5:58 pm

    I really loved this book, and aside from all of the great things you mentioned I was totally floored by the crazy Kennedy connections (because stuff like that just gets my history geekery going).

    • Kim September 15, 2013, 5:11 pm

      Oh yeah, I forgot about that! That was crazy.

  • Athira September 12, 2013, 6:57 pm

    I’ve been hearing good things about this book. I will have to give it a try!