1. Residents of McCarthy express nostalgia for life before the
national park, before government rangers and extensive rules about
bulldozers and cabin living. Do you think those old freedoms are
worth preserving? What is the appropriate balance to strike between
allowing pioneers the opportunity to follow their dreams and
preserving nature in a pristine state, and between the rights of
the individual and the interests of future generations?
2. McCarthy residents-even more than other Alaskans-tend to
think of themselves as idealists pursuing off-the-grid lifestyles.
Evil, when it comes, invades from the outside world. But the remote
end-of-the-road community seemed to attract troubled, unstable
individuals. Do you think the appearance of people like the
mail-day murderer and the Pilgrim Family reveals something
essential about McCarthy?
3. Do you think the abuse present in this book could have taken
place anywhere, in a city apartment or on a quiet suburban
4. Once he left Texas, Robert Hale chose to raise his family on
horseback in a rural setting amid the trappings of the Old West.
How did it benefit Papa Pilgrim to deploy the mythology of the
frontier as he did?
5. Robert Hale's sons don't believe he killed Kathleen Connally
because, they say, he would have confessed to such a sin during his
early devout days as a Christian. The Alaska prosecutor noted that
such a confession could send a man to prison. Given the available
evidence, do you think the death of his teenage bride was an
6. The narrative doesn't progress chronologically, from Bob
Hale's boyhood in Texas through New Mexico to Alaska. Instead, two
story lines proceed in parallel for the first half of the book. Why
do you think the author structured the story as he did?
7. What role did music play in the lives of the Pilgrim
8. The Pilgrim children were denied access to movies and books.
Why did Papa Pilgrim allow a single book, the seventeenth-century
allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, in their home? Do you
think there is an innate need for stories in our lives? How have
the children used the Bible's stoies to explain their imprisonment
9. How do you feel about the descriptions of abuse in the
family? The author remains fairly dispassionate in tone and borrows
some of the family's biblical euphemisms to depict the horrors
unfolding. Is understatement an effective way to describe trauma,
or does it leave you wanting to know more detail?
10. At one point, the children's mother, Country Rose, was
forced to hold her sons' hands as they were strapped to the
whipping barrel and lashed. Is Country Rose another victim of
Papa's, or should she have done more to protect her children? What
about the older sons? Were they wrong not to report whatever abuse
11. What about Elishaba? Should she have spoken up to her
siblings, or to state authorities, rather than try to handle
everything herself? Why would anyone remain in such an abusive
12. Why do you think Papa Pilgrim precipitated a war with the
National Park Service so quickly? How did he benefit from external
13. At one point, the Park Service planned to send forty-three
personnel to investigate the Pilgrim Family's actions in the park,
including an armed SWAT team to guard forensic biologists. Even
after backing off, the government spent at least a half-million
dollars on its response. Was this an effective way to deal with the
situation? The family's defenders felt the government wanted to
make an example of these "last pioneers" to establish their primacy
in the mountains. Do you agree?
14. The author switches to first person to tell part of the
story. Does this weaken the omniscient voice used elsewhere, or
strengthen it? What does the author's personal story say about the
pioneering legacy that motivates so many characters in the
15. In many ways, the views of the Buckinghams were as rigidly
fundamentalist and patriarchal as those professed by Papa Pilgrim.
What was the difference between the two families? Could a
non-Christian family have intervened and played the same role as
16. If the Buckinghams hadn't entered the story, was there
another way out for the Pilgrim children? What do you think might