In Michael Finkel's "The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit," Christopher Knight seeks a place away from the world and man-made noises and distractions.
At age 20, he leaves a job, gets in his car, and starts driving. After making it as far south as Florida, he turns around and ends up in Maine, about 30 miles from his family home in Albion. With the car almost out of gas, he parks it, leaves the keys in the console, and chooses the place in the woods where he will live for the next 27 years. Knight does not have any formal survival training, yet he knows what type of site will hide him from human sight. He chooses an area that is hard to see from the air for the tall canopy of trees above. His camp is surrounded by huge rock boulders, so that one has to find the slimmest of openings to enter.
Hikers walk near from time to time, and never see him. He never lights a fire during his years in the woods. He is careful never to leave footprints when he leaves camp. No one knows his whereabouts, although his phantom presence is keenly felt by those with vacation homes encircling North Pond about a mile from his hidden home.
Survival is dependent on a food and water supply. Knight has no money and when hunger becomes the issue, he makes the decision to steal what he needs from the campers’ homes that are nearby. He becomes skilled at his trade. He trucks hamburger, Twinkies, hot dogs, bread, etc. back with him, but the real prize is propane tanks, and eventually books become a treasured find. All of these supplies wind back at his living area. For 27 years, he pilfers, the campers realize they are being robbed, but despite elaborate schemes to catch him, Knight eludes human detection for 27 years.
The “hermit” becomes a thing of legend… until, one night he enters the kitchen area of a camp for children with disabilities, and is caught by a Maine game warden living nearby who has devised a unique alarm system just to capture the soul that has been dogging the area for so long.
Knight is taken to jail, where Finkel makes contact with him and slowly begins to interview the “stranger in the woods.” The reader starts to be filled in with what Knight wants us to know. He is cautious, experiencing a difficult re-awakening to being among humans in a whole different decade.
This book is about so much more than Chris Knight’s extraordinary life in the Maine woods. It invites us to search inside ourselves to explore our own deeply personal places of solitude. It also raises questions of how society treats those of a different mind when it comes to human contact and what it means to be intentionally and absolutely alone with one’s self.
The Weekly Read features book reviews by area educators, librarians, journalists and other book-lovers. If you would like to contribute a review, call (319) 758-8148.