Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel

Release date: March 7, 2017
Author links: Goodreads - Twitter - Website
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 224

Description (from Goodreads):

Many people dream of escaping modern life, but most will never act on it. This is the remarkable true story of a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, making this dream a reality—not out of anger at the world, but simply because he preferred to live on his own.

In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life—why did he leave? what did he learn?—as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

Wow, what a story! Sometimes reality really can be stranger than fiction.

Have you ever dreamed of just leaving everything behind, of disappearing? I imagine we all have feelings like that sometimes, but the urge to do so is balanced by other things. For example,  I could never imagine leaving my family behind. And to be completely honest, I don't think I could live without a computer for long. And since I burn in the sun very easily and hate mosquitoes, outdoor living probably would not make me very happy in the long run.  

I had never heard about Christopher Knight before, which is kind of surprising since it seems like his name dominated at least the US headlines for a while after his arrest. When I first heard about this book, I instantly became interested and tried to resist the urge of doing research on him because I felt like as a reader, the best thing for me would be going into this book without reading too much about its subject matter beforehand. Please note, though, that I still recommend you read this book even if you feel like you already know there is everything to know about this guy.

In late 1980s, Christopher Knight, 20 years old at the time, left his job and home in Maine and took to the woods without telling his family or friends were he was going. His family didn't hear of his for the next 27 years. Throughout the years, he became a sort of urban legend, a hermit living in the woods and a menace of the local cabin owners who constantly found that their properties have been robbed. Knight rarely stole anything of large value, but the fact that people were not able to protect their properties from a thief obviously caused anxiety. 

I had not read anything by Michael Finkel before picking this one up, but I definitely want to check out his previous work now. The way he writes about Knight is done brilliantly, in my opinion, and the way he is able to not only introduce Knight's ideas about what happened, but also of those someway influenced by Knight's actions is done gracefully and in a way that really made me think. 

Why did Knight leave everything he had behind and decide to live in the woods? What kind of punishment is fit to a man who committed over 1,000 burglaries to survive? What does Knight's decisions tell about the society and about the nature of solitude? 

Finkel paints Knight as a complicated figure. On the one hand, he is extremely intelligent and crafty, and a kind of smart that might seem indimidating; he is philosophical and probably possesses thoughts only those who have lived in solitude can possess. He also seems somewhat pure, because like he says, the opinions of others have not really affected his life since he went to the woods; he has not have had to pretend to be someone else, to play a role. He has been able to completely and fully himself. On the other hand, he seems extremely arrogant and inconsiderate, traits that probably connect to the fact that he has not interacted with other people for almost three decades. 

His actions are also complicated. The decision to leave everything behind and to willingly live in the woods of Maine is something probably not a lot of people can understand. And as we know, something that we don't understand often tends to scare us. I definitely would be intimidated around a person like Knight. I found the fact that his family did not report him missing very strange, but believe that really the only people he hurt by leaving were his family members. Obviously, others became hurt too in different ways as they became victims of robberies.

I appreciated the fact that Finkel does not attempt to represent Knight either as some sort of hermit hero or as a criminal. Rather, by using statements by Knight himself, he paints a picture of a man of multitudes. Knight was never violent and only attempted to burglarize homes that were empty. He did not steal anything of value and only stole money in very small amounts. But nevertheless, he did walk into the homes of other people and thus created feelings of unease and paranoia. Understandbly, opinions about the ways in which Knights should be punished varied, and my thoughts about it changed constantly. On one hand, I felt sympathy for Knight, one the other I had a hard time understanding his decisions. 

While I think Knight's story in itself is extremely interesting, I think the process I personally went through while making my decision about what to think about Knight was the aspect I enjoyed most as I read this book. Finkel clearly shows respect for Knight, and maybe even a degree of admiration, but never tells the reader of what to think. As mentioned, by offering multiple points of view to the situation, Finkel makes sure that the reader has the choice to make her own judgments. While in the law robbery includes "bad", when it comes to Knight I think the situation is not as black and white.

All in all, The Stranger in the Woods was an extremely interesting, thought provoking read and one that I will definitely recommend to everyone. Even if you are not usually a fan of non-fiction, I think the way this one has been written might catch your interest. 



  1. I think I am going to recommend this for book club. I'm up in NH and we have heard of him! When he was brought out of the woods it was a big deal up here - how long he had been living as a hermit! I want to know more about his story.
    Rebecca @ The Portsmouth Review
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    1. I think this would make an EXCELLENT book club book for several reasons: (1) it is fairly short (I know book clubs usually tend to avoid big books because those are not the preference of all readers), (2) the story is one that everyone with a computer than do research on, (3) the actions of Knight will most likely divide opinions which will result in good conversations, and (4) the book feels kind of timely in the sense that at least it made me think about my relationship with solitude, other people, etc.

      I honestly would love to discuss this in a book club setting -- now I am just trying to make all of my friends read it so I can discuss it with someone :D


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