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Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness

Kizzia tells the fascinating true story of a modern-day pioneering family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness—and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch

Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness

Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

Tom Kizzia
  • Imprint: Crown Publishers
  • On sale: July 16, 2013
  • Price: $25.00
  • Pages: 336
  • ISBN: 9780307587824
Contact: Sarah Breivogel


“Riveting… Pilgrim’s Wilderness lends credence to the maxim that the unadulterated truth, when conveyed with sufficient skill, is not only more illuminating than fiction, but also more entertaining. Tom Kizzia has written an uncommonly insightful book about postfrontier Alaska, an ambitious literary work disguised as a page-turner, very much in the tradition of Edward Hoagland’s Notes from the Century Before and John McPhee’s Coming into the Country.” –Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Under the Banner of Heaven 

“This is a riveting, mesmerizing story, stunning and eloquent all at the same time.  I simply couldn’t put it down.”
Ken Burns, filmmaker, The Civil War and The National Parks: America’s Best Idea

“What an epic story – sociopathy and crazy ideology hits the final frontier.  Jon Krakauer couldn’t have done it any better.”
–Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth and Deep Economy

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is a fine book, methodically narrating a tale of libertarianism gone haywire on a genuine frontier.”
–Edward Hoagland, author of Children Are Diamonds and Notes from the Century Before

“Tom Kizzia’s superb book is startling, unpredictable, haunting, clear-eyed, unrelenting, sad, and beautiful. Pilgrim’s Wilderness, in other words, is like Alaska itself, a subject the author understands deeply and evokes with uncommon skill.” 
–David Maraniss, author of They Marched into Sunlight and When Pride Still Mattered 

“There isn’t a bad sentence in Pilgrim’s Wilderness, not a dull page or sour note. A masterpiece of reporting and storytelling.”
–Zev Chafets, author of Cooperstown Confidential and A Match Made in Heaven

“Sends readers on a roller-coaster ride that is as thrilling as it is shocking. Kizzia’s work is a testament to both the cruelty and resiliency of the human spirit, capturing the sort of life-and-death struggle that can only occur on the fringes of modern-day civilization.” –Publishers Weekly 

“A journalist’s gripping account of a modern fundamentalist Christian pioneer family and the dark secrets that held it together…Provocative and disturbing.” –Kirkus Reviews

“Strong work of reportage… [Papa Pilgrim’s] intriguing past crumbles in comparison to his excruciating cruelty and to the inspiring grace and strength of his children.” –Booklist

 Alaska has long been a refuge for the nation’s pioneer spirit. In Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier (Crown Publishers, July 16, 2013), veteran Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia offers readers a riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family who played that mythical pioneer role to brilliant advantage—and of the dark secrets that brought them and their remote wilderness community to the brink of disaster.

In 2002 a mysterious man who called himself “Papa Pilgrim” appeared in eastern Alaska with his wife and sprawling family of fifteen children and settled on a magnificently isolated site deep in the largest national park in the United States, thirteen miles up a mountain valley from the tiny, ghost town settlement of McCarthy. The Pilgrim Family, whose children were gifted musical performers, claimed to be hardworking, pious, and humble refugees from a sinful world who had come to Alaska seeking privacy and salvation. When Papa bulldozed a road through the wilderness to town, igniting a battle with the National Park Service, the locals at first celebrated his antiestablishment ways. Yet as tensions grew and the strange history of Robert Allen Hale, Papa’s given name, emerged, the family soon became a flashpoint that set neighbor against neighbor.

Kizzia first met the Pilgrims as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News while covering their battle with the Park Service.  He knew the colorful ghost town of McCarthy well, having built his own cabin in the community and written about the local struggle to maintain frontier ways in a modern era. But Robert Hale’s trail led Kizzia back to New Mexico and Texas, to a wealthy family with ties to Hoover’s FBI, to the mysterious death of a famous politician’s daughter, and to oblique connections to the Kennedy assassination. The more he learned about Papa’s past, the harder it was to tell whether his children in Alaska were messianic followers or hostages in need of rescue.

From its opening account of the older children’s daring secret attempt to escape the Pilgrim compound to the culminating state trooper manhunt for Papa Pilgrim, Pilgrim’s Wilderness is an engrossing inside account of horrific hidden parental abuse, a heartrending story of children who must defy their godlike father if they hope to survive. In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and the high drama of Jon Krakauer’s adventure narratives, Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture an era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers touched off by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and family captive.

Tom Kizzia traveled widely in rural Alaska when he was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. His stories about the Pilgrim Family won a President’s Award from McClatchy Newspapers. He is a former Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University and his work has appeared in the Washington Post and been featured on CNN. His first book, The Wake of the Unseen Object, was named one of the best all-time nonfiction books about Alaska by the state historical society. He lives in Homer, Alaska.

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