THE STRANGER IN THE WOODS
The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
By Michael Finkel
203 pages. Knopf.
This was one of the books I checked out of the library recently. Christopher Knight was 20 years old, living in Maine with his family when he drove off one day in his new four wheel drive his brother recently co-signed for him.
He went as far into the Maine woods as he could possibly go, following as many trails with his vehicle as possible. He put the keys on the console, walked into the woods and wasn’t seen again until 27 years later.
This true tale is an amazing study about the life of this man who yearned to disappear from life as he knew it.
The story is riveting. How many of us wish we could live in nature and disappear at times. This man did it. Not only did he succeed at the isolation but he lived this life in Maine. Maine has extreme winter conditions.
Michael Finkel is a journalist who was taken with this story when it broke in the media. The book opens when Christopher Knight who survived by stealing food and other necessities from the various cabins around North Pond lake he camped near, was finally captured by the police. He was able to set up an extensive camp, surrounded by harsh terrain and large boulders. He was close to civilisation but still disappeared. If he would have had a mobile phone he’d of had reception.
He sneaked into the cottages around the lake and took what he needed. He always felt guilty about his stealing but did so anyway. He was meticulous in dress and deed. He once came upon another in the woods and said “Hi” as he passed him. This was his only word spoken in that time. He stated he did not talk to himself.
Michael Finkel lives in Minnesota. He flies to Maine several times. He manages to weasel his way into the life of Christopher Knight but they never become friends. He corresponds with him by mail. Over several years he manages to get the story from this man. I thought the author was at times overly intrusive in this man’s life in order to: either understand his story or just finish his book… or both.
The story is about Christopher’s life in the woods. How he survived. There is a lot of research in the book about others who have lived solitary lives, been hermits, been religious recluses. There is a good bibliography of other books on this topics. Some I would like to also read. The book is a quick read. It is a fascinating story and there is much food for thought. I found once I began this story it stayed with me and I could not put it down for long. I found it sad when he was finally captured.
Not everyone believed the story. I did. I thought it all rang true. I could understand what this man felt and I also understood the diagnosis the psychiatrists gave (to a degree). Not everyone is cut out to live within society as most of us know it. Some personalities just don’t cope.
The book is uneven in places. I had a few questions that finally got answered, for the most part. When I finished the book I googled the news articles around his case. He was prosecuted for the many thefts of homes over the years. However it was reasonable as he only ever stole what he needed. Warm clothes, batteries, sleeping bags, food.
In the end he was sentenced to 7 months jail of which he served while waiting for trial. He had more years on his sentence but all were suspended. He had to complete community service and he had three years probation. His probation ends in March 2018. I wonder if he will disappear again. His age is now 50. It would be a harder thing to disappear as a 50 year old than a 20 year old.
His family never knew what happened to him and were most surprised when he surfaced. He was still living at his original home with his mother, now in her 80’s when the book was published.
I don’t think I’m ever going to forget Christopher Knight or his family. The whole family is unusual. But they are good, hard working people. They just don’t like anyone in their business and they don’t socialise a lot. If you enjoy stories of people who live life outside the norm then this is an interesting read.