Tuesday, 17 April 2018

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

In 1986, 20 year-old Chris Knight walked into the Maine woods and didn’t emerge for the next 27 YEARS! He made camp at a hidden spot near a place called North Pond and survived by repeatedly burglarising the surrounding cabins, most of which were uninhabited for much of the year. Astonishingly, he wasn’t caught until 2013 and up until then had become a local legend dubbed the North Pond Hermit. Journalist Michael Finkel interviewed Knight several times while he was awaiting sentencing and the end result is The Stranger in the Woods, as near a full account of Knight’s years in the wilderness as any we’re likely to get. 

This book was great! I’ve never read anything by Michael Finkel before or knew anything about Chris Knight so was pleasantly surprised on both counts – Knight’s story is absolutely fascinating and Finkel is a terrific writer. 

Beginning with Knight’s fateful nocturnal raid when he is finally arrested, Finkel takes the reader on a fast-paced, yet thorough, tour of Knight’s life, from his rustic childhood with his self-sufficient, stoic farming family, to suddenly deciding, two years out of high school, that he was done with the world and randomly took to the forest. 

As well as providing a clear and compelling picture of Knight’s zen-like existence over his hermit years, Finkel is careful to include the perspectives of Knight’s “victims” (I use quotation marks as his crimes were so benign; stealing Twinkies, batteries, jeans, etc.) as well as those who don’t believe he lived in the woods for so long as the Maine winters are too brutal. It makes for a well-rounded, considered overview. 

Though Knight comes off as intelligent and articulate, he is, understandably for someone who chose to live as he did, a man of few words (when asked what profound insight he gained after untold hours spent alone thinking he said “Get enough sleep”) who steadfastly refused to document his experiences. And while Knight opened up to Finkel a fair bit, some aspects to his story remain unsatisfying from a narrative viewpoint, particularly regarding his motivation. 

To that end Finkel includes details on historical hermits, expert opinions on Knight’s possible autism, and the tremendous benefits of being alone, all of which provide added context and possible explanations for Knight’s choices. The part where modern hermits ponder whether or not Knight was a “true” hermit was amusing as were the qualifiers - does stealing count or should he have lived off the land? Still, despite the author’s efforts, Knight remains unknowable and mysterious which seems fitting. 

It’s a odd contradiction: Chris Knight’s everyday existence - made up of the usual domestic chores - was wholly unremarkable and yet it was remarkable for how he chose to do it - completely alone, in the woods, where nobody knew where he was. The story certainly lives up to the book’s subtitle - Knight’s life is certainly extraordinary! 

Michael Finkel’s writing style is always clear, informative and entertaining. Combine the accessibility and compelling subject matter to the relatively low page count at just under 200 pages and you’ve got a helluva zippy read. An excellent book, fans of Jon Ronson will definitely enjoy The Stranger in the Woods.

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