Book review: The Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel
“How long,” she asks, “have you been living in the woods?”
“Decades,” he says.
Vance would prefer something more specific. “Since what year?” she presses.
Once more with the years. He has made the decision to talk, and it’s important to him to speak strictly the truth. Anything else would be wasting words. He concentrates for a time, gazing toward the windows, still black. He remembers something.
“What year,” he asks, “was the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster?”
In 2013, a Massachusetts man named Christopher Knight had been living for 27 years in a camp deep in the Maine woods near the town of Rome. At the age of 20, he’d driven there, parked his newly purchased car, leaving the keys on the center console, and wandered off into the woods with nothing beyond the clothes on his back, deeper and deeper, until he found a suitable spot.
A line I found amusing about that: “His departure was a confounding mix of incredible commitment and complete lack of forethought, not all that abnormal for a twenty-year-old.”
He made a small camp and survived the next nearly three decades by breaking into the cabins of the nearby North Pond community, stealing packaged foods, batteries to operate a stolen TV and radio, clothing, books, old gaming consoles, and whatever else he needed.
He didn’t speak with or touch another human being for 27 years, besides a single passing encounter with a hiker in the woods during the 1990s, when he said “Hi”. He measured time only by the changing seasons, noting the date or day of the week when he heard it mentioned on the radio.
Knight was a hermit, eschewing modern life and all its trappings, opting not to compete for jobs, education, homes, career, relationships; the whole grind. He wasn’t escaping anything specific – no debt or deals gone wrong, broken relationships, family drama or anything of that nature. He had no traumatic events in his past haunting him. He simply didn’t want to take part in the process of living in a community and abiding all its rules, in civilization as it is. He kept no written records or journals and never even contacted his family.
Journalist Michael Finkel was reluctantly granted access by Knight after his arrest for burglary, having finally been caught by security cameras and sensors rigged by North Pond residents sick of the regular break-ins. His transition back into society is also reluctant, and obviously transitioning directly from his own carefully managed wilderness refuge to jail is a significant shock. Finkel began writing letters to him, gently wishing him well in his court cases and for the changes he faced. Knight responded, eventually allowing Finkel to visit the prison.
In their interviews he answers many of the obvious questions about this endeavor: the logistics and some of his troubleshooting techniques for the myriad issues that arose in the unusual circumstances. The author also researches how hermits have lived historically, and why they’ve chosen this life. Some of the parts I particularly enjoyed were about the science that lends credence to humans needing more quiet, alone time than we allow ourselves, especially those of us living in cities.
I did feel somewhat uncomfortable with some of Finkel’s encounters with Knight towards the end. Knight never really completely relaxed with him, besides inadvertently dropping his guard on one momentous occasion. I don’t think his wiring even allowed for true trust, and his family was against his participation in interviews. He grants Finkel a lot, but ultimately the journalist pushed a bit far and it’s hard not to feel sorry for Knight, despite his crimes of being a thief and burglar (and breaker of his mother’s heart) countless times over.
He was just seeking something nearly unattainable in modern society, something that despite being an outlier is not altogether uncommon, as the book’s historical and scientific research shows. When he finally asks to be left alone again, it’s annoying to see that line crossed.
Then again, I’m reading the book and there’s undeniably a voyeuristic element: when I heard about it, I had to satisfy my curiosity about how exactly this hermit life worked. I was fascinated. And in that respect, it doesn’t disappoint: it’s honest and revealing.
And there’s a lot that’s interesting here about loneliness and how we deal with or process the elements of life that are difficult or unpleasant: “But life isn’t about searching endlessly to find what’s missing; it’s about learning to live with the missing parts.”
It’s mentioned in the book and I tend to agree; how you view Knight and his decisions is kind of a projectable Rorschach test. How you feel about what he did and why says more about you than it may initially seem.
An engaging, thoughtful, if at times uncomfortable read.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
by Michael Finkel
published March 7, 2017 by Knopf