'Pilgrim's Wilderness' is spellbinding true story of a wayward family in remote Alaska

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 3:57 PM

NONFICTION: At first, the rustic newcomer charmed his neighbors. But soon they sensed that something was off. And then things got chilling.

“Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” by Tom Kizzia

When “Papa Pilgrim,” his extremely quiet wife and their 14 (soon to be 15) offspring arrived in the remote old mining town of McCarthy, Alaska, in 2002, seeking a wilderness home and religious freedom, the locals were charmed.

The Pilgrim family looked like something out of the 19th century, self-sufficient country people who spoke softly, sang like angels and set about homesteading an area they accessed by bulldozing through national parkland, which struck the locals as admirably gutsy. They quickly embraced Papa’s folksy denouncements of “meddling” government officials, particularly the National Park Service, which was busy setting parameters for the new Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The family “appealed to Alaska’s romantic notion of itself,” writes author Tom Kizzia, who covered its story for the Anchorage Daily News.

As time passed and the standoff with the Park Service intensified, even Pilgrim’s most fervent champions began to feel uneasy. He’d send long letters full of archaic language to the local paper or simply post them in town. And wherever he went, he was followed by his almost always silent children, who many suspected of being vandals and thieves at their father’s command.

Kizzia met the family and started writing about them, only to be cut cold when presented with Kizzia’s findings — that “Papa Pilgrim” was actually Robert Hale, the privileged, hell-raising son of a Texas FBI man. Hale’s first wife, teenager Kathleen Connally, had died of a gunshot to the head in 1959 — a suicide, claimed Hale, who had been present. Kathleen, who was pregnant when she died, was the daughter of John Connally, later Texas’ governor. Kizzia also reported about Pilgrim’s other marriages and children, as well as the trail of complaints his family had left across the Southwest.

Much later, the authorities, neighbors and Kizzia would learn of Pilgrim’s even darker secrets. He was slowly going mad, and his wife and children suffered mightily at his hands. Most brutalized was his daughter Elishaba, whose devotion to him was poisoned by the horrific demands he made on her. The Bible justified it all, he would thunder at her.

Slowly, with the help of another large religious (but healthy) family, the children began to realize that what they were experiencing was criminal, and worse. With drama and compassion, Kizzia tells of their exodus to safety.

Even in the hands of a mediocre writer, this story would be mesmerizing. But Kizzia’s gifts as a journalist and writer are such that it is a powerhouse of a book, destined to become a wilderness-tale classic like Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.”

On one level, it’s a brilliant exploration of the kinds of frontier issues that most of America put away more than 100 years ago — rugged individualism vs. community cooperation and compromise, and wilderness harnessers vs. preservationists.

But most and best of all, it is the story of how a pack of illiterate, brainwashed children came to realize that the man they looked up to as a god was actually a tyrant, and how they found the courage to break free. Here’s to them, and to Kizzia for telling their incredible story.

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  • Tom Kizzia

  • PILGRIM’S WILDERNESS

    By: Tom Kizzia.

    Publisher: Crown Publishers, 309 pages, $25.

    Review: The story of Papa Pilgrim, his family of 16 and their trek to the Alaskan wilderness reads like a bewitching, brilliant novel set in the 19th century. But the chilling events it describes are all too real, and all too recent.

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