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

Oh boy, where do I begin with this one… I found the subject matter fascinating yet the execution was just… really lacking. The Stranger in the Woods is supposed to be about Christopher Knight, a man who at 22, disappeared without a trace into the Maine forest where he lived for 27 years, through brutal winters and humid summers. He was apprehended in the mid-2000s, while on one of his breaks in into a summer camp where he was essentially freeloading and stockpiling food. For 27 years, his presence terrorized the local community as cabins and homes were mysteriously broken into, clothes, books, tools, and food taken. The question of “why” Knight chose to leave society behind and live in the forest is critical, but for me, the “how” is even more so.

Finkel’s book turned out the way it did (mostly him positing thoughts about how Knight could possibly be thinking this or that or maybe this) is solely because he only got access to Knight for a very short period of time. Finkel took advantage of Knight while Knight was at the county jail, writing to him and trying to build his trust to learn more. This is painfully clear as soon as all the “dramatic details” are over. It feels incredibly extractive and awkward as Finkel seems to be almost harassing Knight. Finkel is persistent, visiting Knight in jail weekly, pressing him to share what led him into the forest. We get it, Knight felt free and truly happy when he was living in the elements, focusing his energy on surviving. Finkel brings in the Dao de Jing, all kinds of other Chinese philosophies and compares Knight to numerous “famous” ascetics and gurus. Unfortunately, this does not work for me. Neither do the parts where Finkel posits Knight may have Asperger’s or some other type of diagnoses that would explain Knight. Almost glorifying a person who stole to survive did not sit well with me.

The weird thing is that Finkel’s ego almost levitated above the story which was supposed to be about Knight. Finkel wrote about visiting Knight and included so many of his own thoughts about the situation, I thought I learned more about the author than I did about the subject. While I could more than tolerate the first third of the book, I could hardly focus during the last third. If you’re truly interested in Knight, you’re better off reading a Wikipedia page than reading this book.

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