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Pilgrim's Wilderness

A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier

by Tom Kizzia

Hardcover, 336 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25 |


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A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier
Tom Kizzia

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Book Summary

Years after Robert "Papa Pilgrim" Hale and his anti-establishment family settlement in remote Alaska, they were exposed as a cult-like prison where Hale brutalized and isolated his wife and 15 children. The family endured torturous abuse before the older children escaped and reported Hale to authorities.

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NPR stories about Pilgrim's Wilderness

A Dark Family Secret Hidden For Years In Alaska's 'Wilderness'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Pilgrim's Wilderness

Prologue: Third Month

When the song of the snowmachine had faded down the valley, the sisters got ready to go. Elishaba moved quickly through the morning cold and snow in heavy boots, insulated pants beneath her prairie skirt, ferrying provisions from the cabin — raisins, sleeping bags, two white sheets. Jerusalem and Hosanna tore through the toolshed looking for a spark plug. The plugs had been pulled from the old Ski- Doo Tundra machines that morning.

It was late in the Third Month, and the days in Alaska were growing longer. The overcast was high, the temperature holding above zero. They knew they didn't have much time.

White mountains squeezed the sky above the old mining cabin. For weeks, Elishaba had been looking up, praying as if to the summits. But she knew the snow was too deep, she would be tracked easily. The only trail, the one that had brought their family the attention they once shunned, ran thirteen miles through the wilderness, slicing down the canyon through avalanche zones and back and forth across the frozen creek.

The trail ended at a ghost town. McCarthy had once been a boomtown of bootleggers and prostitutes. These days it was the only place in the Wrangell Mountains that could still be called a community, though most of the old buildings had fallen down and a mere handful of settlers remained through the silent winter. At first that isolation had been the attraction. The Pilgrim Family had traveled thousands of miles to reach the end of the road in Alaska. They had parked their trucks at the river and crossed a footbridge into town and continued on horseback and snowmachine and bulldozer and foot to their new home.

Now McCarthy burned in her imagination not as the end of the road but as a beginning.

Psalms and Lamb and Abraham looked on in horror. Their big sisters had been put on silence. Yet here was Elishaba, calling out as she moved to and from the cabin, as if she no longer cared what would happen.

Elishaba was the oldest of the fifteen brothers and sisters, a pretty, dark- eyed, dark- haired young woman, strong from a lifetime of homestead chores, from wrangling horses and hunting game. At twenty nine, she was no longer a girl, though she had never lived away from her family, never whispered secrets at a friend's house or flirted with a boy. She had been raised in isolation, sheltered from the world and its television and books, schooled only in survival and a dark exegesis of God's portents. She was the special daughter, chosen according to the Bible's solemn instruction. Her legal name was Butterfly Sunstar.

She gave the children a brave and reassuring smile. They could see now that she was weeping and frightened and that she did indeed still care. She was committing the unforgivable sin. The Lord had held her, steadfast, in these cold mountains, and would not let her go. His grip was strong.

Her sisters looked happy, though. Hosanna had found a spark plug. Perhaps it was a sign their enterprise was favored after all. Jerusalem — short, blond, and cherub-cheeked, at sixteen the second oldest girl — had declared she would not let Elishaba go alone.

Elishaba and Jerusalem said swift good- byes and climbed together onto the little Tundra and sped down the trail.

They made it no farther than the open snow in the first muskeg swamp. The snowmachine lurched to a stop. The fan belt had snapped. Jerusalem used a wrench to pull the spark plug and stumped back up the packed trail, postholing through the snow. Elishaba tried to mend the belt with wire and pliers but gave up.

She looked about. The snow was too deep to flounder through, the trees too far away. It felt like one of those dreams where she tried to run and couldn't move. She sat listening for the sound of a snowmachine returning up the valley from town.

Instead she heard Jerusalem coming on the other Tundra. They reloaded their gear and started off again. A pinhole in the fuel line was spewing gasoline, but if this, too, was a sign it went unseen. They flew too fast on a curve and nearly hit a tree and slowed down.

Jerusalem, holding on in back, started crying now, too. She was thinking about all they were leaving behind. In modern Alaska, with its four-lane highways and shopping malls, her family was famous, recognized wherever they went. People cheered when the Pilgrim Family Minstrels performed onstage. That beautiful old-time picture was gone forever.

The sisters prayed out loud. Where the snow-packed trail turned uphill, they stopped and listened. The valley was heavy with quiet. They started again and pushed up the hill and at the top they discovered the family's other big snowmachine, hidden in trees too far from the cabin for anyone on foot to find it. The sisters hesitated. They talked about switching, but the old Tundra was running well so they decided to continue. But right there the engine died, and that's when they discovered the fuel leak. Maybe the Lord was indeed helping them, they said. They felt a surge of hope as they transferred their gear and continued on the third machine.

There was so much about the world the sisters did not know. But there were things they did know and these were the skills they needed now. Where the trail climbed over the riverbank, Elishaba veered away behind the snowy berm, so that someone coming the other way might not see their track. She drove into the spruce trees and shut down. They could see the trail through the boughs. The telltale smell of two-cycle exhaust lingered in the still, cold air. They covered themselves in the snow with the two white sheets.

The faint whine of a snowmachine, growing louder, was coming up the valley.

From Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier by Tom Kizzia. Copyright 2013 by Tom Kizzia. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers.