Jon Krakauer pioneered the art of taking local stories that would have been forgotten rather quickly and expanding them into intriguing full length books. It’s a great trend for American literature in my opinion because it pulls us into the small slices of Americana that would be overlooked otherwise.
Tom Kizzia’s Pilgrim’s Wilderness follows the Krakauer model to tell the story of a religious family with fifteen children that travels to Alaska in the early 2000s, ostensibly to find a suitable place to homestead and live their backwoods, radical Christian lifestyle. The family patriarch, “Papa Pilgrim,” is the central figure in the story.
The book includes chapters on Papa Pilgrim’s early life, which is especially intriguing as we learn about the death of his first wife, a tantalizing aside about a possible connection to the demise of JFK, his time as a hippie, a chance encounter with Charles Manson, and finally his transformation into a type of cult leader. Although the man was truly a monster, one can’t say that he didn’t lead an interesting life. Also fascinating is the description of the family’s life at the edge of law and society in New Mexico, which is almost romantic in a way.
In Alaska, we see how Papa Pilgrim the sociopath casts his spell on the tiny village of McCarthy, playing people off each other, and ultimately thwarting the federal government’s attempts to enforce National Park policy on his inholding of land in Wrangell St Elias Natl Park. The last parts of the book are the most disturbing, as the reader learns how monstrous Papa Pilgrim really is. One finds oneself rooting for his family and hoping they escape as the true dark character of Papa Pilgrim trickles out. Is the man insane? A true believer of his own apocalyptic religion? Or calculating, crafty and evil? There’s many angles to contemplate through out.
Even though the story leads up to incredibly dark revelations about Papa Pilgrim was, one cannot help but being drawn in. The author deserves commendation for his skill as he takes the Pilgrim Family’s story and makes it flow with suspense and conflict while telling a coherent and well rounded story. Perhaps he replicates the way the townspeople of McCarthy felt, thoroughly fooled by a man who was a skilled manipulator, always knowing exactly how to control people.
Pilgrim’s Wilderness is an excellent case study of an extreme sociopath at work, and it deserves a read from anyone who wants to better understand human nature.
PS. Familiarity with the geography and culture of Alaska will be most helpful for the reader to put the book’s events into context. Some exploration on Google Maps, image searches of Kennecott Mine, McCarthy, and Anchorage should suffice.
PPS. The descriptions of abuse in the book are truly disturbing. Read with discretion.