Homer writer Tom Kizzia’s “Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” works as something of a Rorschach test. What the reader sees in the story of the Pilgrim family’s Bush experience might reflect the reader’s own expectations of Alaska. The book could be some or all of the below:
• A tale of a pious, Christian family seeking a refuge from the distractions of the modern world so they can better know God and their faith;
• The adventures of a resourceful, Lower 48 family learning the skills to become genuine Alaskans living off the bounty of the good earth — and also pretty damn good Americana folk musicians;
• The clash of modern, overly regulated Alaska with the pioneer spirit of the original Alaska, and
• A brave young woman’s flight from a tyrannical, emotionally and sexually abusive father.
Kizzia said he sees his book as being all of that, and more.
“It’s the story of the family, first of all, obviously, and how the kids rescued themselves when no one else would do it for them,” he said. “It’s also this story of one man’s journey to Hell.”
A former Homer News editor and reporter, and until he took a buyout in 2009 and retired from the Anchorage Daily News, the paper’s Kenai Peninsula correspondent, Kizzia reads from, discusses and signs his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Homer Public Library. Copies are available for sale.
“Pilgrim’s Wilderness” follows the Papa and Country Rose Pilgrim family of 14 children from its beginnings in the Southwest to their arrival in Alaska in 1997. The family wandered around Alaska, including stays in Homer and Anchor Point, before finding what Papa Pilgrim called “Hillbilly Heaven” on a mining claim 13 miles out of the historic copper mining town of McCarthy. The Pilgrims gained national attention in 2003 when they bulldozed a road to their homestead in defiance of the U.S. Park Service, becoming libertarian folk heroes in their stand against the federal government.
That story was how Kizzia came to know the Pilgrims, but the story took a darker turn when the oldest daughter, Elishaba, then 29, later escaped from Hillbilly Heaven. Papa Pilgrim had sexually abused her and physically abused her brothers and sisters, she told Alaska State Troopers.
In researching Papa Pilgrim’s past, Kizzia also stumbled across a surprising revelation: his original name was Robert Hale, and he had a connection to President John F. Kennedy, Texas Gov. John Connolly — the governor riding in Kennedy’s car and wounded in Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas — and Connolly’s daughter, Kathleen, who died in 1959 of a suspicious shotgun blast while married to Papa Pilgrim in Florida.
Kizzia said “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” takes up where John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country” leaves off.
“The setting there of all that nostalgia — the transition from open wilderness and protected wilderness and what does this mean for Alaska,” he said. “It was the perfect family story to tell that bigger story.”
That dark undercurrent of Papa Pilgrim’s past and his abuse of his children and wife flows under the surface story. Kizzia doesn’t soft pedal the abuse, but he also pulls back from being overly graphic about the nastiness he calls “The Wake of the Unseen Object,” referring to his first book about rural Alaska.
“It’s better writing to hold back the horror and let the reader come forward. You hold back and the reader leans in more,” he said. “If you come on too strong, the reader leans back and is somewhat repelled.”
In writing “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” Kizzia also balances his more than 30 years of journalism experience with a personal, intimate tone. Part 1 reads like the Anchorage Daily News long form article it started out as, when in 2003 Kizzia went to McCarthy and Hillbilly Heaven to interview Papa Pilgrim. That article and the early chapters of his book look at Papa Pilgrim in McCarthy and chronicle his Texas roots as the son of the head of the Dallas FBI office. It’s the story of many Alaskans, a man leaving behind a dubious past in the Lower 48 and reinventing himself in the wilds of Alaska.
“That’s the story I wrote in 2003,” Kizzia said. “It was a good story. It was a great story, one of the best I ever wrote.”
Kizzia worked an angle to get that story, and get close to Papa Pilgrim. Pilgrim called him “Neighbor Tom” because Kizzia and his wife, Sally Kabisch, had land and a cabin in McCarthy and frequently visited there. Knowing the town and its people, but also not being full-time residents, gave Kizzia a unique perspective to write about Pilgrim and his confrontations with the Park Service and the town.
“I was also an outsider and a journalist and I could ask nosy questions,” Kizzia said. “In a small town, it’s not appropriate to ask nosy questions of your neighbor.”
Kizzia said he suspected something odd was going on. Papa Pilgrim contolled his family literally with the fear of Hell — if they defied him, they believed their souls were damned — the children wouldn’t speak openly to Kizzia.
“It was clearly tightly controlled on one level and happy sunny children on the surface,” he said.
Part 2 gets more personal, and it’s where Kizzia puts himself in the story — a violation of the objective voice in journalism, where the writer if mentioned is always “this reporter.”
Making that first-person part a separate section was Homer writer Nancy Lord’s idea, Kizzia said. His editor had suggested putting a first-person author’s note up front, but then Lord said that in the first-person narrative where Kizzia goes to visit the Pilgrims, he should make that a separate section to let the reader gain some footing.
“It was important for people to realize I had a role in the story as part of the community, a peripheral part, and how I came to have an authorial voice that had some command,” Kizzia said.
Kizzia starts off his book with a bang that pulls the reader through a compelling narrative: Elishaba’s attempt to escape from Hillbilly Heaven, where Kizzia leaves the reader hanging for another 200 pages. Her liberation came about after the Pilgrims met a Palmer family, the Buckinghams, also a fundamentalist Christian family with a strong father, Jim Buckingham. In difficult straits in the winter of 2004, the Pilgrims turned to the Buckinghams for refuge. As the Pilgrim children got to know the Buckinghams better, the example of a faithful family not ruled by a tyrant caused the older children, particularly Elishaba, to question Papa Pilgrim’s rule.
Elishaba’s story impressed Kizzia, he said.
“She emerged as kind of the Katniss character at the heart of the story, the wilderness woman who has to lead the rescue,” he said, referring to the heroine of Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy.
The Pilgrim children didn’t participate officially in writing “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” but individually they contributed, Kizzia said, particularly Elishaba, who he came to know better as he worked on the book and who wanted to tell her story.
“She got to see how valuable it would be for other domestic-violence victims to hear the story of her escape,” he said. “If she escaped from the most impossible situation imaginable, the woman or child being abused on the suburban street would have more resources to get away.”
Since being published in early July, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” has been featured on NPR’s evening news show, “All Things Considered,” and favorably reviewed in Publishers Weekly and Outside magazine, which called it “a gripping nonfiction thriller told with masterful clarity … the sleeper hit of the summer.”
With the book out, Kizzia also has begun to hear stories from locals of when the Pilgrims lived in Homer. The irony is that during that time Kizzia and his family were in California, where he had a journalism fellowship at Stanford University.
“I was like the only guy in town who didn’t know them,” he said.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the
By Tom Kizzia
Crown Publishers /
July 2013, $25
7 p.m. Tuesday
Homer Public Library