The Stranger in the Woods: by Michael Finkel

The Stranger in the Woods: by Michael Finkel

Knight reads as a cantankerous individual who, rather than participate in society, elected to simply drop out entirely and live wholly on his own.

The Stranger in the Woods: by Michael Finkel

3.25 / 5

There’s something of an ethical dilemma in the case of Christopher Knight, the so-called North Pond Hermit. For more than 25 years, Knight lived alone in the woods, isolated from society yet relying on its resources to continue his solitary existence. Having abandoned his car in 1986 somewhere in the northern Maine woods and simply walking until he found a spot he elected to call his own, Knight entered the woods with nothing but the clothes on his back. Because of this, he would spend the next several decades breaking into cabins and residences to gather all his supplies. From food to clothing to books to propane, Knight pilfered every item within his makeshift camp-in-the-woods. While there’s a certain romanticism to a life lived alone in the forest, isolated from the progress of society and the anxiety of modernity, the fact of the matter is Knight’s existence was only made possible by his hundreds of break-ins and thefts from the seasonal residents of the North Pond area.

For years, the legend of the North Pond Hermit had children and adults alike scared out of their minds, a literal campfire tale come to life. Yet Knight never harmed a single person, nor did he target (at least not intentionally) any occupied residence. In fact, he was rather conscientious in the way in which he went about procuring his supplies, taking only items of minimal value along with canned foods and other assorted sundries. Regardless, each time he went out for more supplies he was committing a crime, one that he was well aware of and purported to feel bad about, yet he continued doing so until he was ultimately caught.

A clear social misanthrope, Knight reads as a cantankerous individual who, rather than participate in society, elected to simply drop out entirely and live wholly on his own, off the grid yet still largely reliant upon it. It’s certainly something many have considered in theory, but very few have managed to do it in practice, let alone for more than a quarter of a century. And as becomes clear as the reader learns more about Knight, it takes a very specific personal disposition—one existing somewhere between misanthropy and the highest functioning end of the autism spectrum—in order to pull it off without regard for those left behind or those affected by his myriad break-ins.

As author and outdoorsman Michael Finkel sets out to expand his previous article on Knight into book form, he can’t help but insert himself into the narrative. So much so that by the end of The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, the reader shares Knight’s wish to never see or speak with Finkel again. A fascinating story in and of itself, one can’t entirely fault Finkel for wanting desperately to become a part of it, yet his complete and total narrative immersion only serves to further distance the reader from Knight as he bristles at Finkel’s single-minded investigation into the whys and hows behind a decision that, it soon becomes clear, transpired beyond any sort of simply explainable, rational thought.

Seemingly realizing the futility of the task with which he’s face, Finkel essentially explores three separate thematic tangents throughout: the overarching narrative of Christopher Knight and his decision to voluntarily remove himself from society at the age of 20; a scattershot history of hermits and the assorted terms, definitions and requirements for one to be considered as such; and his own obsession with Knight’s decision. The problem with the latter is that Knight himself has no definitive answer for why he did what he did. Dancing around the issue, he ultimately comes to the milquetoast conclusion that he elected to live in complete isolation simply because he could; there was no other driving factor in his decision to live at a near-complete remove from society.

It’s ultimately a fascinating story, but it lacks the substantive details and depth of character analysis in Knight to warrant a full-length book treatment. As a standalone article, Finkel’s original piece for GQ was more than sufficient in telling the whole of the story. Expanded here, it contains much of the original narrative with assorted details and filler information—including Finkel himself—included to help pad the story without really adding anything to it. Sometimes the idea of the story is far more interesting and engrossing than the subject at the center of things. Knight himself proves a sphinxlike enigma likely somewhere on the autism spectrum—something Finkel goes so far as to support with interjections from assorted specialists in the field. Because of this, The Stranger in the Woods remains frustratingly just that.

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