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

This is a quick post.  I read Michael Finkel’s book, The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit in two evenings…it was more an experience, than anything.  Written about Christopher Knight, a man who at the age of twenty slipped into a thick wood and didn’t have a conversation with another human being for thirty years, this book is an unusual narrative, with moments of real revelation. I was fascinated by the story and throughout, couldn’t really come to terms with a mixture of emotions…revulsion, sadness, envy or curiosity (of the ambulance-chaser sort).

Honestly, I think it is the most interesting thing that Christopher Knight and the family that knew him, opened up to Michael Finkel enough for him to collect the content for this writing.  So, the process of research and respectful communication of this content was just as fascinating to me and generously included.

I had read, a long time ago, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer.  I suppose one could make comparisons between the two books.  However, I think that Christopher Knight’s methodical approach to stealing food and supplies is what, ultimately, kept him alive over decades and in the end, led to his capture.  Enduring isolation of the northern Alaskan wilderness, Christopher Johnson McCandless was in true ‘survival’ mode, leading to the eventual and mysterious loss of his life, probably four months after disappearing.  It was obvious, in reading both, that there were motivations to disconnect from society, but both men did that in very different ways.

From Goodreads, I’ve lifted these words.  I like that Michael Finkel responded to the reader…

I haven’t read this but not likely to. The mere fact that he stole from people that worked hard for what they had…the fact that for 27 years this community in Maine lived in fear because of these unsolved burglaries that he committed is beyond shameful. He didn’t live off the grid. He lived off of other people who worked for a living. “He survived by his wits and courage” ?? No. I don’t think so.

Response from Michael Finkel: “Hello. I’m the journalist who wrote this book. Chris Knight — the hermit — is not portrayed, not for a page, as some sort of angelic hero in the book. Knight himself did not want to be portrayed that way. He confessed to 1,000 break-ins, one of the most extensive burglary cases in U.S. history. He tormented people. But — he also never physically harmed anyone, never carried a weapon, never stole anything of great monetary value, never shattered a window or kicked down a door. He had a wildly unusual idea for how to live, and he lived in a way radically different from any other human you will ever encounter, and he has an awesome and daunting brain — he is, I feel certain, a genius — and he has insights into modern society and solitude and the meaning of life that you will find nowhere else. “Take the good with the bad,” Knight told me, when speaking of how he should be portrayed in my book, and I did. I firmly believe that in the good are some incredible insights, and in the bad is a fascinating true-crime tale. And please note — Knight is receiving no money from this project. A summer camp for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities (The Pine Tree Camp), from which Knight frequently stole, will instead be receiving donations.”

Having read the book, I am glad to encounter this response, as it does represent the book very well.   I felt, at times, compassion for Christopher Knight, wondering what feelings and experiences within him, motivated such a disappearance and disconnect from his life.

As Calgary suffers such a bitterly cold winter, I also truly engaged the stories of survival that involved planning and revising a nest/camp.  The description of winter, alone, is enough to keep me from ever wondering about doing this same thing!

Christopher Knight told this story, as much as Michael Finkel did.  If my readers enjoy adventure or are taken by very unusual characters, this is the book for you.

It was good to meet Michael Finkel and to have him expand upon the narratives that connected him to his character.

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