HOMER -- Walking into a Homer restaurant with a copy of Tom Kizzia’s long-awaited book, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” is akin to carrying in a newborn baby. Locals crowd around you, asking when the book release is scheduled and what the story is like. Their enthusiasm speaks not only to their interest in the book’s subject — the heartbreaking story of the tyrannical “Papa Pilgrim” and his family — but also their enthusiasm for the author, a longtime Homer writer and newsman.
“Pilgrim’s Wilderness, A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” takes readers on a wild ride through remote Alaska and into the mind of Papa Pilgrim, a man with a twisted history and an even more twisted and abusive way of controlling his wife and 15 children. While most in Alaska are familiar with the story from news coverage from the Pilgrim family’s battle with the National Park Service and later, when Papa Pilgrim was finally tried and convicted for sexual and physical abuse against his children and wife, the details are far more chilling when laid out in intimate detail on the 309-page Crown Publishers book.
Like so many things, Kizzia’s history in Alaska led to his unusual access to this bizarre story. His late wife, Sally, had connections to McCarthy, and they built a small cabin in the isolated community long before Papa Pilgrim — Robert Allen Hale — his wife and 15 children came to town. A long history of honing his journalistic skills, from his mid-’70s stint as the editor of the Homer News to his time covering rural Alaska for the Anchorage Daily News, also prepared Kizzia for tackling the unthinkably strange intricacies of the Hale story.
From his living room couch, Kizzia recounts the story’s history, which stretches back to 2003, after Hale decided to run a bulldozer through the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
“When I interviewed him the first time, he sounded like such an interesting character, the way he was defending their actions based on their lifestyle, that I wanted to see it up close and find out more and he was willing to let me go visit,” Kizzia said. In his prologue, Kizzia writes that his having a cabin in McCarthy put Hale at ease. He called the writer “Neighbor Tom” and suggested Tom was sent by God to help him tell his story.
“So I got out there and it was kind of like tumbling down the rabbit hole from that point on,” Kizzia said. “It was weird right from the start, the way the family would gather around him.”
But even with the unusual opportunity to visit the Hale property, Kizzia said it was hard to guess the details of what was going on — details that would come out much later after several of the children fled McCarthy and eventually reported horrendous abuse to the authorities.
Following Kizzia’s first stories about Hale, the self-proclaimed Christian became a “cause celeb” for property rights folks who were battling the park, the author said, and phone interviews followed, but the trip to the property would be his only visit. The Hale family didn’t like the first stories Kizzia did, and eventually wouldn’t answer his phone calls.
Kizzia said they especially didn’t like the fact that he dug back into Robert Hale’s past and found out all the mysterious details of his life as a young man growing up in Texas. Hale had started life as the son of a wealthy, high-status Texas family with ties to Hoover’s FBI. He married young after getting the daughter of a famous politician pregnant. When the young woman died in a questionable suicide only months later, it was a shock to all, and launched Hale on a strange path that eventually led to a religious awakening, his efforts to raise his family in relative isolation, and eventually move from New Mexico to Alaska in 2000. Interestingly, the Hale family lived in the Homer area for some time, but Kizzia said he never met them during that time, since he was on a writing fellowship in California that year.
Early on, people asked Kizzia if he was going to write a book about the Hale family since they seemed very interesting, but he replied, “No, not until I find out what the last chapter is going to be because I know there’s more coming down about these folks and I’m going to see what that’s going to be.”
Even a few years later when the girls escaped McCarthy and the whole story blew up, it still didn’t seem like an easy book to write, Kizzia said, because it was so dark. The story of Hale’s abusive relationship with all his children, but particularly his eldest daughter, who he was convicted of repeatedly beating and raping, eventually showed Kizzia another angle.
“When I got to know the kids and saw how strong and resilient they were and how interesting it was that they sparked to a conscience, that even without input from outside, they were able to resist this person who they were taught to believe spoke with God’s voice and to risk God’s wrath. It was inspiring,” he said. “It was uplifting.”
Kizzia said the process of writing the book over the past four years has been challenging, despite his background as a longtime journalist and author of “The Wake of the Unseen Object.” The first draft of “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” had to be cut dramatically, taking out large chunks dealing with Alaska’s history and the history of the McCarthy area. The resulting work focuses more on the story of the Hale family, but includes the history of McCarthy and the issue of land rights, a touchy subject among independent Alaskans, which the Hale story inflamed.
“The biggest challenge was trying to get it focused,” he said. “Eventually I had to realize where the story was and that this was one of those rare stories that could carry all those big themes kind of lightly and naturally without having to have a whole chapter on it.”
Kizzia said he’s been encouraged by initial reviews, as well as the book jacket “blurbs,” reviews written by authors. One such review comes from Jon Krakauer, author of “Into the Wild” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
“Riveting,” Krakauer writes. “’Pilgrim’s Wilderness’ lends credence to the maxim that the unadulterated truth, when conveyed with sufficient skill, is not only more illuminating than fiction, but also more entertaining. Tom Kizzia has written an uncommonly insightful book about post-frontier Alaska, an ambitious literary work disguised as a page-turner, very much in the tradition of Edward Hoagland’s ‘Notes from the Century Before’ and John McPhee’s ‘Coming into the Country.’”
Others have called the book provocative and disturbing, thrilling and shocking.
“Kizzia’s work is a testament to both the cruelty and resiliency of the human spirit, capturing the sort of life-and-death struggle that can only occur on the fringes of modern-day civilization,” writes Publishers Weekly. “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” which came out this week, is for sale in autographed hardcopy editions in the Homer Bookstore for $25 plus tax.
Jenny Stroyeck, co-owner of the Homer Bookstore, said she and others at the bookstore who read the book thought Kizzia did an extraordinary job writing about a tough subject without overdramatizing the story.
“I think he respectfully wrote about something that needed to be said,” she said. “I think this is going to be a big title for him.”
On Tuesday, the online bookseller Amazon reported that "Pilgrim's Wilderness" was ranked No. 241. A reading and booksigning is planned for Tuesday July 30 at 7 p.m. at the Homer Public Library. Books will be for sale at that event.