“The Stranger in the Woods” is one of the most unusual true stories I’ve ever read, and it is so well crafted that it leaves the reader feeling sympathetic toward the criminal protagonist.
It’s the true account of Christopher Knight, a man who abandoned his family after high school and headed for the woods of Maine to live in solitude. His crime was that he stole food, sleeping bags, books, clothes, socks and other items from seasonal cabins in order to live in the wild.
Sounds like a nice, meditative weekend camping trip, right?
He did it for 27 years.
“Stranger” is the second novel by author Michael Finkel, who wrote my favorite book of all time, “True Story.” I appreciate that Finkel isn’t cranking out books three times a year that include typos and unexplained plot developments just to make a buck, but dang, I want more. The writing is so good. In this particular book, the narrative takes the reader through Knight’s history, his capture and even includes excerpts from Finkel’s nine one-hour interviews with Knight while he was incarcerated at the Kennebec County Jail.
This Finkel guy is the real deal, y’all. He talked to Knight’s family members, former teachers and classmates, law enforcement and dozens of people who had homes in that forest where Knight lived for so long.
The book explores the possibility that Knight suffers from Aspergers Syndrome and looks into the writings of monks, theologians and scholars who retreated to the woods, albeit for much less time. Finkel himself once went on a retreat in India where he was not permitted to speak or even make eye contact with others. It lasted a mere 10 days and in Finkel’s own words, it “did not go well.”
It’s proven that there is value in solitude, but most humans eventually crave some sort of contact with others. Knight just didn’t.
Knight, who became known to locals as “the North Pond Hermit,” committed about a thousand burglaries over the years, and understandably, some of his victims felt violated and concerned that there might be a crazed serial killer in their midst. Only once did he break into a home that was occupied, and that was a fluke. He repaired any latches or hinges that he broke and never took food items that were opened, lest he be poisoned. He never lit a campfire, lest he be tracked by authorities. He preferred the bitter Maine ice storms to snow because his tracks were not detectable on the ice. He mentally prepared himself to die in the woods.
And while it’s admirable that he pulled this off for almost three decades without getting sick (he claimed that illness comes from contact with the germs of other humans), frozen or literally bored to death, he’s not portrayed as a particularly likeable character. He just wants to be left alone.
Finkel, true to form, interjects his own story into the book and exposes his own vulnerability. He claims that Knight never looked particularly happy to see him and almost went out of his way to not be affectionate or grateful for Finkel’s interest in his story. It’s not exactly the tale of two men who became the best of friends. Although there’s a touching scene in which Knight expresses his wish to end his life, and weeps, and Finkel weeps with him, the story pretty much ends with Knight asking the author to leave him alone for good.
It’s an honest story, and it’s baffling because it’s not something most of us can relate to. Human behavior fascinates me, but there’s something a little seedy about reading about a woman scorned who runs over her philandering husband in a parking lot or a cheerleader mom who takes out a hit on her daughter’s competitor. This story is shocking in its own right, but it does make the reader feel a little sorry for the guy. Why can’t he just live off the land like he wants to? The punishment of being forced back into society and having to meet with a probation officer under fluorescent lights every week must have been torturous. There are no accounts of him going to a restaurant, a church or a grocery store, but that would likely cause a panic attack.
It’s a bit of a sad story, but it’s a good reminder that everyone is suffering in their own way, and sometimes the best gift we can give them is to let them be alone.
Editor’s note: This definitely scores five stars out of five for me and I’m happy to share my paperback copy with someone else who would like to read it. Author Michael Finkel has graciously agreed to a Q&A by email in the coming weeks, so look for that.
One more thing: When you Google Christopher Knight to read more on his story, add the word “Finkel” or “Stranger in the Woods” or “hermit.” Otherwise you will get a lot of material on the actor who played Peter Brady.
What’s on your bookshelf? Share your recommendations by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.