Book review: Pilgrim’s Wilderness – A true story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia.

Book review: Pilgrim’s Wilderness – A true story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia.

I make no secret of the fact that I love non-fiction books. Tell me how to do something, what you’ve learned, or how and why something happened, and I will be your fan forever.

pilgrimDescribed as “Into the Wild meets Helter SkelterPilgrim’s Wilderness is the riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness—and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch.” This book is a well written and researched account of what happens when Papa Pilgrim, his wife, and their fifteen children appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy. The patriarch soon sparks a confrontation with the National Park Service, fiercely dividing the community over where a citizen’s rights end and the government’s power begins.

The book follows the story of a man – self-dubbed a devout Christian, who terrorized his family and essentially held his children and wife captive, all while rising up against the government. The story ends up being a study in one man’s madness. How mad is too mad?

Tom Kizza has traveled widely in rural Alaska and he wrote for the Anchorage Daily News. It’s the journalist in him that makes this book extraordinary. Some books on events after the fact – are nothing more than a tired chronological recounting of what happened. “First this happened, then that, which led to this.” When you trip over such a book, you often you find yourself deeply sighing while you continually flip to the last page in order to keep track of how much more you need to read. And very often, these are the books that are put aside with the hope that “you’ll get back to it someday.”

Not so the case with Pilgrim. The painstaking research done for this book is impressive. There are accounts of the family and confrontation from various points of view, referenced documents cited, and plenty of interview quotes from all sides. Here’s one writer who did his work and didn’t just Google the story (which is something that seems to be happening more and more.)

Although Kizza is reporting on the story, he uses prose that captivates his readers and which helps to turn the book from an account into a story that grabs and holds you as tightly as any fictional account could. It’s not often that a retelling of something that happened in the news can be made suspenseful, but that’s exactly what Kizza manages to do with this book. You can’t wait to find out what happened. You turn the pages.

Of course, in order to pull this off, you need to have a sharp writing style that feels free to poke at the topic being discussed. Kizza has it:

The dispute over access had been building in McCarthy for some time. Those who accepted traditional notions of frontier progress believed better access – a faster rad, a bigger bridge – was the key to McCarthy’s future. Others saw nothing wrong with a few roadblocks. The pro-footbridge association of local residents, the McCarthy Area Council or MA, was no opposed by a second group, the Coalition for Access to McCarthy, or CAM. When the two groups were involved to pose questions to state transportation planners regarding improved access to McCarthy, the final merged list of 122 queries, ranging from the eminently practical to the nigglingly constitutional, read like found poetry, a free-verse ode to rural Alaskan cantankerousness.

Why should you read Pilgrim’s Wilderness? – Besides the fact that it’s a fascinating story, this book is an excellent example of how to turn a real-life event into a retelling that feels like an exciting and suspenseful fictional story. That’s not an easy thing to do, it takes skill, and it takes knowing your subject matter inside and out. Pilgrim is one of the best examples of accomplishing that feat that I’ve read in a long time.

Read it and learn.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review – the views are my own.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). ( She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.


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