Friday, June 9, 2017

Non-Fiction Review: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

"The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit" by Michael Finkel
First published in 2017
203 pages
My rating: 3.5 out of 5

The Short Of It:
An interesting, readable non-fiction story about, as the cover says, a man who very well might be the last true hermit.

The Long Of It:
When he was 20, Christopher Knight decided to leave civilization behind and live in a tent in the woods of Maine. He never lit a fire, he spoke just one word to another human being -- "Hi" -- in nearly three decades, and he subsisted entirely through petty theft.

For years "The Hermit," as he was known, frightened a small Maine community as their homes -- and a summer camp for the mentally disabled -- were repeatedly broken into, with food, clothing, propane tanks, batteries, books, magazines and even mattresses taken. Eventually, in 2013, he was caught in the act, arrested, and forced to give up his seclusion.

The sheer dedication to living a solitary, humanity-free life is astonishing. Knight would literally rather have frozen to death in the middle of a frigid Maine winter than light a fire and risk discovery. Too, he admits to feeling deep shame for stealing, but he continued to do it for years and years and years. I was baffled by his commitment to isolation, and of course I wanted to know why -- and I had assumed that was the whole point of the book. Unfortunately, despite Finkel's best efforts to get that answer, he doesn't really have one and apparently Knight can't articulate it either. It seems likely that he falls on the autism spectrum, or has something called schizoid personality disorder, but that's not exactly a definitive explanation. So, while the story was interesting, it felt a little purposeless -- and like it could've been much shorter than 200 pages.

I can't fault Finkel for this, but I just could not warm up to Knight. He comes off as prickly and arrogant. I couldn't grasp his motivations, and I couldn't abide the decades of theft. Why not hunt or fish or start a vegetable garden? It was sort of like he was cheating at being a hermit, because even though he didn't want to be a part of society he still wanted to partake of its spoils. (I try hard not to be judgy, but I definitely fell short while reading this book!)

And something I was really craving throughout was photos! Photos of the camp, photos of Knight. Of course, I turned to Google, and I think I understand why Finkel didn't include any: when Knight was arrested, he was pale and pudgy with desperately out-of-date glasses -- the same ones he was wearing when he decided to live off the grid in 1986. Then, after months jail -- the chaos of which must have seemed like absolute hell to him -- he's gaunt and has a Grizzly Adams beard. And the fact of the matter is, an old, pasty, balding, sorta creepy-looking guy -- who's also odd and misanthropic -- is a little harder to empathize with.

Despite its faults, "The Stranger in the Woods" is still worth a read -- and it's super-quick. If I hadn't had such a hectic week when I read it, I would've had it done in two days. I did like Finkel's writing, and while I definitely didn't like Knight, his story bizarre was certainly interesting and thought-provoking.


  1. I just got a copy of this from the library! I went to college in that area and my ex-boyfriend used to work at that very summer camp. I sorta get why someone would want to live away from people, but I do feel like decades of theft isn't the way to do it. I'm honestly not sure what I'm expecting to learn from this book but I'm glad to hear that it's a quick read, so I think it will be worth it just to get more details about how he managed not to be caught earlier.

    1. How fascinating that you have a personal connection! Did you ex-boyfriend mention the "hermit" then?

      I think that's the thing I struggled bit with -- there's really NOT anything to learn from this book. But it was still an interesting read.

    2. Nobody knew about him at the time of course, and it's entirely possible they were aware of thefts, but I just don't remember at this point.

  2. I read this too and could not understand why someone who claimed to have had a good childhood and no family problems would choose to not even bother with is own family for all that time. So sad.

    1. Yes, I was baffled too. Though it sounds like his own family was a bit frosty and antisocial as well.

  3. This sounds so interesting. It's frustrating though, when it seems like a nonfiction writer couldn't really get the full story.

    1. It really was an interesting, unusual tale. I think the blame doesn't really lie with the writer here as far as not getting the whole story, but the fact that Knight doesn't fully understand his own motivations -- which sort of confused me!


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