Friday, September 6, 2013

Tom Kizzia's "Pilgrim's Wilderness"

Tom Kizzia's stories about the Pilgrim Family won a President's Award from McClatchy Newspapers. He traveled widely in rural Alaska as a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. His work has appeared in The Washington Post and been featured on CNN. Kizzia is a former Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University and a graduate of Hampshire College. His first book, The Wake of the Unseen Object, was named one of the best all-time non-fiction books about Alaska by the state historical society. He lives in Homer, Alaska.

Kizzia applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Pilgrim's Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier, and reported the following:
The chapter titled "Hostile Territory" focuses on the escalating confrontation that opens the story of Pilgrim's Wilderness. It is 2003 and the fretful National Park Service has sent rangers on a snowmachine foray into the valley of the Pilgrim Family, who have set about bulldozing, hunting and homesteading in the middle of America's biggest national park.

The problem for the federal rangers is that Alaska's new national parks, staked out by Congress in 1980, were supposed to allow a measure of frontier living even as they protected the continent's last big tracts of wilderness. Papa Pilgrim and his wife and fifteen children were surely pushing the limits, but no one was really sure where those limits were.

On page 99, I provide a little background on this moment in American history. The rangers, concerned that overzealous pioneering could affect park resources, have been met with hostility from some residents of the nearby copper-mining ghost town of McCarthy. And I point out they've also had to deal with political hostility from above, as when former Interior Secretary James Watt opened the black spruce bogs just north of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to latter-day homesteading in 1983, adding new pressure on park resources:
It proved to be the last federal homesteading opportunity in American history, where Jefferson's agrarian idea emitted its death gurgle in a mess of muddy muskeg trails and abandoned tar-paper shacks.
The park seems determined to make an example of the Pilgrims. And vice versa. The apprehensive rangers, serving as advance scouts for a massive and well-armed damage-assessment team, are confronted by several silent long-haired Pilgrim sons. Both sides are armed with video cameras. But there is nothing funny about how Papa Pilgrim forces the rangers to turn back. The Christian patriarch is "as aggressive as passive gets," in the words of a neighbor.

Page 99 includes a reminder of why tensions in Alaska were high. Memories are fresh of the fatal face-off in 1992 at Idaho's Ruby Ridge between federal agents and a similar isolated, apocalypse-ready family.

The Alaska national park confrontation draws media attention to the Pilgrims for the first time and makes them back-to-the-land icons for the property rights movement. But the political drama is soon to move from center stage, as the terrible reality at the heart of the Pilgrim Family's frontier myth-making emerges and the children themselves must rise up against their god-like father and his legacy of ignorance, brutality, torture and rape.
Learn more about the book and author at Tom Kizzia's website.

--Marshal Zeringue