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A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

by Tom Kizzia

Pub Date: July 16th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-307-58782-4
Publisher: Crown

A journalist’s gripping account of a modern fundamentalist Christian pioneer family and the dark secrets that held it together.

Robert “Papa Pilgrim” Hale, his wife and 15 children came to the remote little town of McCarthy, Alaska, convinced that it was God’s will they settle there. Claiming that he and his family wanted nothing more than “to live our old-time way and be left in peace,” Pilgrim bought privately owned acreage that happened to be surrounded by lands managed by the National Park Service. McCarthy residents fell in love with the idealistic, God-fearing family members and marveled at how they “could light up any space” with their idiosyncratic brand of American roots music. But when Papa Pilgrim decided to clear a road that ran on public land to the property he christened Hillbilly Heaven, residents became enmeshed in a bitter battle that ensued between their neighbors and the Park Service. On assignment from his newspaper, Kizzia (The Wake of the Unseen Object: Travels Through Alaska’s Native Landscapes, 1998) successfully solicited the media-wary Pilgrim for an interview. What he learned—that Pilgrim was the son of a rich Texas family with links to the FBI—was only a small part of the whole story, which came out only after Pilgrim’s eldest children ran away from home. The real Papa Pilgrim was a deluded megalomaniac who physically and emotionally brutalized his wife and children. He was also a sexual deviant who coerced his eldest daughter, Elishaba, “to keep his flesh working” so that he could bring forth the 21 children he believed God wanted him to have with Elishaba’s mother. The horror at the heart of this story about religious extremism on the fringes of the last American frontier is slow to reveal itself, but when that horror fully emerges, it will swallow most readers.

Provocative and disturbing.