I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but it's undeniable that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. If someone tried to write the story of this family as a novel, it would likely be derided as grotesque and melodramatic. You know what they say about truth being stranger than fiction.
This is a dense, complex story, hard to summarize, but I'll try. Bob Hale, a.k.a. Papa Pilgrim, brings his breed up McCarthy, Alaska, in the hopes of raising his family in a simpler time, where he can focus them on God's word without outside influences. He means business: the oldest kids are in their 20s and not allowed to meet people outside the family. That doesn't set off any warning bells, does it?
But right off the bat, Papa Pilgrim finds himself at odds with the National Park Service over a road he bulldozes inside park boundaries to gain access to his homestead. At first, the lightly populated community of McCarthy takes his side; they think government interference in their lives is wrong, and they admire the man who stands up to the Park Service. But as Papa Pilgrim's weirder ways become apparent--he thinks nothing of stealing from his neighbor, poaching animals out of season, etc.--they become less supportive.
But when another religious family moves in and befriends the Pilgrim family (that's what they call themselves, not the Hale family), they get close enough to discover some disturbing things: namely, almost none of the kids (including those in teens and 20s) can read or do simple math, bruises that don't seem easily explained away, and worse, a night-time relationship between Papa Pilgrim and his oldest daughter, Elishaba.
After that, the family begins to unravel as the older children start to realize that not all families live like theirs does, and what's more, what they thought of as God's will is viewed as fairly evil by other God-fearing people.
Much happens after that. I won't detail it. It's worth a read, although highly disturbing. Even once Papa Pilgrim has finally been hauled off to jail, the family's continuous request of him to repent to avoid hell shows that while not losing their faith, they have finally learned that much of what Papa raised them to believe is wrong.
The heart-wrenching image for me at the end of the book is Mama Pilgrim, living alone in a cabin near the other religious family, who have taken her kids in and really gone far above and beyond in giving them a normal life and helping them recover from their trauma. Author Kizzia makes it clear that Mama Pilgrim was the original victim, married to Papa when she was just 16, and having been beaten and emotionally abused all their married life. Rather than ask, "Why didn't she do something to save her kids?" it's all too apparent she didn't have the psychological fortitude. Oh, and--15 kids. But as the older kids began to rumble with rebellion, she immediately supported their efforts and ultimately helped some escape. Her living apart from them makes sense--she's in dire need of recovery herself and has little to give to the younger children, and she's found an amazing place for them, nearby, where she can visit and where they are loved and well cared for. But after all that, to be alone with decades of horrendous memories--I feel for Mama Pilgrim.
Author Kizzia owns a cabin in McCarthy and met the Pilgrims on more than one occasion as the story was unfolding. His authorship gives a good picture of the community itself from an insider's point of view.