Book Review: “Pilgrims’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” by Tom Kizzia – posted 8/27/2013
I suppose I have a fascination with crazy people who do things that are very out of the ordinary. This book, “Pilgrims’ Wilderness”, by Tom Kizzia has that but it veers in a very dark direction.
The book tells the story of Robert Hale, later known as Papa Pilgrim, and his wife and 15 children who move from New Mexico to Alaska in 2002. We are not talking a move to downtown Anchorage. They moved to McCarthy which is a boondocks town north and east of Anchorage. It is more than 300 miles from Anchorage to McCarthy.
When I lived in Alaska in 2010-11, I drove around some on the weekends. I bought a Honda Fit while I was up there. On one trip, I headed up to Matanuska Glacier to hike around on the glacier. You have to drive through Palmer and head east into some really spectacular country with 13,000 foot mountains in the background and fast running rivers along the road. McCarthy was quite a bit farther east than I ever went. The roads are remote and they get pretty bad from what I have heard. McCarthy is located in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Moving out there was not for the faint of heart.
I am a northeasterner, not a real Alaskan, so I would say McCarthy is a pretty extreme location. Pilgrim said that Alaska was the sweet name whispered by God as his firstborn came of age. That is how Pilgrim said he landed there. Kizzia says that Pilgrim searched around Alaska for 3 years before deciding to settle in Hillbilly Heaven aka McCarthy..
The story of Papa Pilgrim is fundamentally about domestic violence. The family presented to the outside world as hippie back-to-the-landers who were heavy duty Christians. Papa constantly quoted scripture. Country Rose, Papa’s wife, and the children were quiet, well-behaved in public, and quite subordinate There was no doubt Papa was the head of that household. The family played music together and entertained neighbors. The public did not see what was going on behind the scenes.
For a very long time, no one had a clue that Papa Pilgrim viciously beat Country Rose and the children, particularly his oldest daughter legally named Butterfly Sunstar and later called Elishaba. Papa had been secretly raping Elishaba and beating her repeatedly. He hid his actions for a long time but he also used verses of scripture as justification to his family. When his rape behavior became known to the family, he argued that Leviticus allowed father-daughter relationships. This was a guy who had a line of self-justification for everything he did. He actually had other family members refer to him as Lord.
The guy’s dark side included incest, multiple rapes, brutal physical assaults, kidnapping, emotional abuse and manipulation , child abuse, and theft. And all in the name of Jesus. He was finally brought down by the courageous actions of his own children who were able to step outside of Papa’s brainwashing. A criminal case put him away. Papa died in prison in 2008.
Part of Papa’s modus operandi was to isolate his family. He did not allow his children any education. Life was taken up with surviving in the very harsh, separated environment in which they had located.
Papa did work at creating conflict with the National Park Service by bulldozing a road and creating a path through National Park land to the place they settled. He never got a permit for the bulldozing. He would not talk to the National Park people at all and when they investigated, Papa and sons blocked their way. Papa had also posted signs on National Park land saying “No Trespassing NPS”. Coming after Ruby Ridge and Waco, the National Park rangers were very careful about provoking armed response. Ultimately Papa lost in federal court regarding the permit issue.
Papa was briefly a cause celebre for conservative property rights groups who hated the federal government. The Pacific Legal Foundation had taken his case. That was before he was exposed. Kizzia does a good job of pointing out the contradictions between hating the government and depending on the Alaska Permanent Fund to support the family. While Papa actively hated the government, he was happy to take the annual dividend awarded to Alaska residents that could range from $800-$2000 per person. For a family the size of Papa Pilgrim’s that was pretty good money.
Not surprisingly, Papa was a strict disciplinarian. He used a long leather bullwhip on his own family members when he believed they needed “correction”. As his children grew into their later teen years, he taught that lust was an abomination. Papa freaked out about their budding sexuality. There is a brutal description of how Papa turned a barrel on its side and whipped the boys who were made to lie on the barrel. Country Rose held the boys hands and stuffed hankerchiefs in their mouths when they screamed too loud. Papa blamed Country Rose for the boys’ sins. Among Papa’s corrections was the silent treatment. If a child was bad, they could not be spoken to. They might get no food except for bread and water. They could be made to sit out alone in the rain or snow. That treatment could go on for days.
Papa trained the children to report misbehavior and to listen for prideful or rebellious words. He closed the world off so his children had no escape from him.
Because he was a McCarthy neighbor (Kizzia and his wife owned a cabin there) Kizzia gained some degree of trust with Papa. I liked how Kizzia slowly evolved the story so that the abuse did not become apparent until later. I think the hidden aspect of domestic violence in the story is quite consistent with how domestic violence is discovered, if it is discovered. People never know what is going on next door or right down the road. Papa like many abusers was good at facade. He was very self-righteous in public.
I do have a hard time with the notion that Papa was some kind of counterculture figure. Really Papa’s values were loony and once you get past the hippie look, he was simply another deranged Christian lunatic who used biblical verses to justify all kinds of criminality. He was certainly not part of any 60’s style counterculture I would recognize. He was very much a fringe Christian. Unlike Christian homeschoolers who develop educational plans when they homeschool their children, Papa used the Bible to justify ignorance, male supremacy and violence. When you strip away the religious verbiage, he was about maintaining demagogic power and control over his family. Education threatened to expose him so he prevented it.
Papa’s “dream” had a romantic throwback quality that could appeal to those with superficial knowledge of the man. He appeared to be a rebel, living off the grid, defying the modern world. living a self-reliant, subsistence lifestyle, and raising his children by eternal Christian values. When he moved to McCarthy, he conned people into believing his family was something entirely different than what they were. Again, from a distance, his war with the National Park Service appeared to be the justified actions of a brave man striking back against an overreaching bureaucracy.
Things are often not what they seem. Up close, Papa was a nightmare. Behind the seeming god-fearing Christian was a sociopathic megalomaniac who twisted religion to justify his perverse whims. Papa did everything in the name of his religion. How often do we see this or things like it? Kizzia’s book is quite a cautionary tale. I am reminded of this quote from Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”