The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

Image of The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
Release Date: 
March 6, 2017
Reviewed by: 

“an amazing true story that is told with immeasurable depth and compassion . . .  an extraordinary glimpse . . .”

The chances are minuscule that any one of us would meet let alone interact with a more complex, enigmatic person than the real-life subject of The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last true Hermit

This printed work is not simply just another book—it is a profoundly human story but also an experience that can change one’s point of view about life’s choices and the meaning of them. In Christopher Knight’s (referred to as the hermit) case, he chose not to live in the world as most of us do with families, careers, modern conveniences, and communication with others. His chosen milieu was the woods of Maine.

Prior to his exodus from his life in Massachusetts, Knight was an introverted 20-year-old young man with a car, job, few friends, and a family. And one day not really different than any other, he drove to the edge of the woods, left his car keys in the console, and lived in isolation for nearly 25 years, speaking to no one nor having the desire to do so.

He lived on his wits and ability to gather the necessities from nearby cabins only taking what he needed to survive. He scouted out nearby abodes to ascertain those that were uninhabited for the season or empty during the week to avoid being apprehended. He became acquainted with people by the food in their homes and their belongings. Finkel states, “His only real relationship was between him and the forest.”

And over time he became an expert on techniques to prevent hyperthermia in the bitterly cold winters. In fact in all the years in the woods, he was never ill. The only physical issue he had that was obvious involved rotting teeth from all the years of a very poor diet that included a massive sugar intake.

Michael Finkel’s depiction of and conversations with Knight are so completely gripping that one can’t help becoming immediately engrossed. Finkel challenges the reader to journey inward and ask some very profound questions. The one that immediately comes to mind is, “Why would anyone voluntarily choose the hermit lifestyle?”

To facilitate the reader’s comprehension of the hermit lifestyle, Finkel adeptly illustrates the concept by enumerating creative people who were categorized as hermits including Charles Darwin, Vincent Van Gogh, Edison, and of course Thoreau. Thoreau stated, “Not till we have lost the world do we begin to find ourselves.”

With all the expert opinions about Knight and the various theories about his mental health status there was no diagnosis that truly fit him. He simply could not be categorized. And everyone who tried was left in a conundrum.

Knight felt deeply ashamed and remorseful about stealing food from people; he had no enmity or disdain for mankind, he simply wanted to be alone. After one of his visits with Knight while he was in jail Finkel states, “There was no place for him and instead of suffering, he escaped. It wasn’t so much a protest as a quest; he was like a refugee from the human race. The forest offered him shelter.”

It is clear throughout the book that Knight had a brilliant and curious mind. He was a voracious reader and quietly availed himself of reading material whenever he perused a cabin. His interest became so obvious to people in the area that they began to leave bags of books for him hanging on their doors.

The Stranger in the Woods necessitates a prospective reader to totally immerse oneself in the mindset of Christopher Knight. Separating him from the feelings of the rest of us is a disservice to the complexity of our psyches. Perhaps Knight’s life story delineated in this book might be viewed as part of the collective unconscious (a term proposed by psychologist Carl Jung) shared by all human beings.

Resistance to viewing him as an ordinary man who made an atypical life decision may prevent objectivity. Further, it is helpful to understand that people are both individuals and part of a culture. An unbiased viewpoint toward Knight may also enable a reader to more openly examine parts of their own lives and choices they make as their journey progresses.

Only through Knight’s prism can any kind of assessment be made since his viewpoint is completely outside the parameters of the norm. Many will not agree or choose his lifestyle however there are feelings he had that we all have in common, which include the fantasy of escaping the real world and all its complexities.

Temporarily suspending a strict morality and societal proscribed code of ethics is difficult to achieve. However it is only in doing so, that a reader has an opportunity to understand the complexity that is Christopher Knight and to hear his voice. Perhaps some will even identify on some level with his desire to retreat from the rest of the world and to be unencumbered.

Was he a thief? Yes. Did his thefts of personal property cause people in proximity to his camp to feel violated? Absolutely. Did he invade people’s peace of mind? Repeatedly. And as one homeowner stated, “I felt violated over and over and over again.” But after he was apprehended, people felt an unusual respect for him. Even law enforcement officials were puzzled by a man who openly confessed to “a thousand burglaries.” As Officer Hughes said who witnessed Knight’s confession, “Everything in my gut wanted to hate this guy. He stole food from a camp for disabled people. But I can’t hate him.”

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last Hermit may not appeal to everyone. But for those who desire an amazing true story that is told with immeasurable depth and compassion, it is an extraordinary glimpse into a world that defies much of what we think we know about people.