In 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight left society. Leaving everything behind and telling no one, he ventured into the forests of Maine where he’d live alone for the next 27 years. Over that time, he survived by his skills — he was capable of making it through the deadly cold of the winter, unaided — but also by theft, which was ultimately his downfall when he was finally arrested.
While in prison, journalist Michael Finkel began a correspondence, and semi-friendship, with Knight, which would become the basis of his book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. While the story is certainly unusual, it’s not all that extraordinary. Knight was a quiet man who liked solitude, and while his circumstances and decisions are not average, his story is fairly one-note. He left society, lived in a forest, stole from people — repeat for nearly three decades. Nevertheless, the story is compelling, and Finkel’s punchy style (to the point and fast-paced) helps move along what could otherwise devolve into boredom. The Stranger in the Woods is an easy and fun read.
What causes pause, however, is how much the author is enamoured with his subject. With Knight’s skill, unique desires, and Thoreau-esque commitment to his lifestyle was also a strain of selfishness. Knight’s decades of theft had their impact, with residents in the neighbouring towns describing their anxiety. Adverse to charity, Knight would not accept packages left by people who had hoped that by giving him supplies, he would not enter their cottages — his version of pulling himself up by the bootstraps. Beyond this is the unpalatable act of stealing supplies (ice cream, burgers, and so on) from a camp for disabled children and adults.
While Finkel does try to offer these counterpoints to Knights more enticing survival story, they are often meek. The criticism from Maine residents is short, and the crimes are cushioned in the fact that the monetary value of the items Knight stole is minor. Knight is a complex figure; though more extreme, he encompasses good and bad qualities like anyone else. While Finkel knows this, the mildness of efforts to depict Knight as well rounded, and not just a figure of intrigue and admiration, take away from what is only the beginning of a balanced investigation of the man.
Finkel views Knight as a complicated, troubled, and not altogether good figure, but equally reveres his intellect, stoicism, and rugged survival skills. He’s palpably proud of being one of the few people accepted into Knight’s life. Finkel’s feelings towards Knight overtake the survival story, and so what becomes the most extraordinary part of the book is that bias, which he holds. He tries to escape it, and tries to create a balanced portrait — a more journalistic examination of events — but ultimately falters when confronted by his own fondness for Knight. Though he seems to admit his emotional hold (in one sequence, Finkel, overestimating the bond he has with the ex-hermit, visits his home and brings him flowers, which Knight immediately rejects), self-awareness is subjugated to the author’s fascination with his muse. Had the book contained more moments of skepticism, self-critique, and diverse perspectives, it may have had more depth. As it is, it is a fairly shallow look at someone who is just a bit above average.