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Tom Kizzia – Pilgrim’s Wilderness

Book Cover

When God is no longer that man in the sky but the father of a family that has no choice but to follow him.

Publisher: Crown Publishing (Random House)
Pages: 296
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-58782-4
First Published: 16th July 2013
Date Reviewed: 30th October 2013
Rating: 4/5

Tom Kizzia recounts the story of the ‘Pilgrim’ family who appeared at first to be naïve wannabe pioneers in rural Alaska, but later proved to be problematic to the National Park Service, the local residents of McCarthy, and a group of people with a horrific secret.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is the generally well-paced and well-written tale of a family that was not all what they seemed to be. Including tales of what came before McCarthy, and his own then-present reporting of the Pilgrims for the newspapers, Kizzia creates a strong and shocking story, reminding you that appearances can be deceptive.

Kizzia’s approach to the work is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, recommendations for it. Kizzia’s approach is both biased and highly objective. And whereas a bias can often detract from unpersonal non-fiction, here it is necessarily apt. The actions of Bob Hale (‘Papa Pilgrim’) warrant an incredible and understandable bias against him, and it is to Kizzia’s credit that he, the writer, stays away from slandering. Kizzia could not help but be biased, it would be intolerable any other way, and it is interesting that it may take the reader a while to realise why.

This is because for a long while the issues are all to do with land ownership and the way many dislike governmental take overs of land in the name of preservation. Kizzia is fair here, telling the reader why the Pilgrims had a good claim, and why the National Park Service had a right to feel irritated. He includes the various thoughts of the long-term residents of McCarthy. But the reader who is still on this section, if they haven’t realised where the Pilgrim’s tale is headed, may see Kizzia’s bias as unfair – it will all depend on which side of the debate (parkland or private property) they fall. Kizzia includes, one can assume, the whole debate, but he is bias towards the National Park Service whilst giving the Pilgrims’ opinions plenty of time.

Depending on how much prior information the reader has, it may only be after other details of the Pilgrims’ lives begin trickling into the narrative that Kizzia’s viewpoint can be truly appreciated. Providing all sides and quoting everyone when your story has a darkness to follow is admirable, and for all Papa Pilgrim and others’ thoughts on Kizzia’s reporting, he has strayed from the traditional picture of the entertainment-creating out-for-himself journalist.

Quotations are another element that should be noted. Kizzia’s book is full of the words of others; his sources are identified, his commentary backed up, and his views of people as objective as possible when possible. Crucially, he includes the words of the Pilgrim children, and rather than just telling the reader that they changed, he often writes in a way that almost hands the narrative over to them. It is obvious from the specifics of the writing style that Kizzia went straight to the primary sources whenever he could.

By now it will come as no surprise to say that the darkness in the tale is one of abuse. Whilst Papa Pilgrim based his life and rulings, in his mind, on a literal reading of the Bible, this was a man who acted in every way but the way his God wanted. Kizzia does not gloss over facts.

Referring once more to Kizzia’s style, the author has made a brilliant contrast, showing that whilst the Pilgrims did not live a truly Christian life (at least not so long as their father was controlling them) there are other families of similar appearance who do. When the Pilgrim children finally saw freedom it was in the form of a family who were not so different. The Buckinghams wore (and presumably still wear) the same sorts of clothes, share the same deference to gender roles, put God first, live in a cabin, and promote the virtuous way of life – but they are as different to Papa Pilgrim and his views as chalk and cheese. It is perhaps surprising to hear that the Pilgrim children did not escape their father to be introduced to the mainstream way of life but simply to a positive version of their own, and yet it feels very appropriate. These children were so far from twenty-first century life with its television, video gaming, sexual liberation, and shopping, that there is no saying how they would have faired, but the Buckinghams’ similar (but true) focus on God enabled them to stay true to who they had become. In any other book, the Buckinghams may have been regarded as a worry, given the Pilgrims’ background, but Kizzia shows that just because people do not meet expectations, that they share a visual similarity to problematic cases, it does not mean they are the same.

There are but a few places where Kizzia’s work is brought below masterpiece level. There is a lot of superfluous information in the book, of other people’s pasts and of Alaska, that could have been edited out to keep the pace of the narrative going – especially when those people play only a bit-part. There is a constant switch back and forth between eras of the Pilgrim family’s movements that becomes confusing to follow. And there is the unfortunate story of Kizzia’s wife who died from cancer. Sally’s life is of course important to discuss, but the tale of a law-abiding beloved wife who died of cancer included in the story of a lying, cheating, sexual and domestic abuser who raped his children and had no connection to Sally, is out of place. A memoir would be wonderful.

But, as suggested by this review, the work is, as a whole, an excellent one. Kizzia has given a long-lasting voice (as opposed to disposable daily news) to the children and wife of Bob Hale, as well as a voice to McCarthy. His handling of the subject matter and his approach to it are superb and it is safe to say that this book is one that won’t leave you any time soon.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness suggests reflection, asks for empathy, and relates triumph in the face of adversity. It is a difficult book to read, but it is a story that begs to be heard.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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November 8, 2013, 2:48 pm

Yikes. What is it about rural northern places? The rural I get–no one around for any kind of reality check most of the time. But the northern? Of course, this is the farthest north I’ve ever lived, and one thing I have noticed is that I rarely see my neighbors from December to March.

Katie @ Doing Dewey

November 8, 2013, 11:34 pm

You make a very interesting point about when it’s appropriate for a non-fiction author to be biased about their subject! I haven’t read this book, but have heard enough about how it plays out to agree with you that an author is right to introduce a bias when something that is morally wrong happens, even in a piece of even-handed non-fiction.



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