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Originally published Friday, August 2, 2013 at 5:30 AM

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‘Pilgrim’s Wilderness’: in Alaska, a patriarch runs amok

Tom Kizzia’s new book, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” tells the true story of a young man from high Texas society who turned into a brutal patriarch who moved his family to the Alaskan wilderness. Kizzia discusses his book Thursday, Aug. 8, at the Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Tom Kizzia

The author of “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Imagine a large family that so badly wears out its welcome in rural northern New Mexico, a region famous for weirdos, that moving to Alaska just inside Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve still isn’t remote enough to keep it out of trouble. For when Papa Pilgrim, aka Robert Hale, his wife, Country Rose, and their 15 children settle in what they dub Hillbilly Heaven, conflict soon breaks out with the National Park Service. Residents in nearby McCarthy take longer to see through the apparently gentle patriarch to the alcoholic, Bible-thumping, gun-toting pacifist whose talented, musical kids had neither friends nor books.

As Tom Kizzia tells in his absorbing new book, Hale came from “the top echelons of Texas society” in Fort Worth. Son of a famous football player and FBI agent, Bobby was a high-school classmate of John Denver and Lee Harvey Oswald; he dressed well, drove a T-Bird, and dated 16-year-old Kathleen Connally, daughter of politician John Connally. The couple eloped. Their marriage lasted only 44 days before Kathleen was found shot dead. Suicide or murder?

The inquest ruled death by accident. Hale drifted on in a blur of drugs and religions, a period Kizzia can only sketch. How this privileged young man became such a misfit remains a mystery. Hale nevertheless sweet talked 16-year-old Kurina Rose Bresler into marrying him in 1974. At age 33, he had married twice since Kathleen’s death and already fathered four children. But apparently the Lord had told him to have 21 children and Kurina Rose was willing.

Kizzia and his family had a cabin near McCarthy and, as strange stories about the Pilgrims proliferated, he started filing pieces for the Anchorage Daily News, where he worked as a reporter. The result, “Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier” (Crown, 309 pp., $25) weaves a bizarre account between Alaska and New Mexico in its first half, portraying a man who becomes more erratic and demanding but less tolerant as years pass. Papa Pilgrim, as he calls himself, believes he’s a prophet. If his wife or children displease him, he beats them or punishes them with silence, being locked outside or fed nothing.

What a contrast this private tyrant is to the loving father, so gentle in public, who assembles his whole family to woo listeners with bluegrass music. What a wholesome image this humble, ragged group projects, so devoted to each other.

But in fact, the book opens with a couple of the children trying to escape on a snow machine one winter night, immediately making us wonder what the real story is.

The real story is heartbreaking. Papa Pilgrim teaches his children to steal, to defy authority — except his own — to be self-reliant in some respects but utterly subservient to him. He commits incest and rape. He tells the children to run and hide when social services comes to investigate. The children rustle cattle and poach game, all permissible under Papa’s interpretation of the Bible. Never taught to read, the kids can’t interpret the book’s teachings themselves. Indeed, when Kizzia’s newspaper articles about them run, they can only stare at the pictures.

As children will, Papa Pilgrim’s kids grow, become restless, and begin to crave freedom and outside friendships. The family’s brutal unraveling is a shocking tale readers won’t soon forget.

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