Extreme Isolation and Moral Questions

Stranger in the Woods by Michael FinkelThe Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 203 Pages

The value of solitude and time spent alone are appreciated by most people. The ability to take time to recharge and relax from the hustle and bustle of everyday life is something to which many wish they could devote more time. However, the majority of people would not voluntarily spend twenty seven years without any contact from other humans, which is exactly what Christopher Knight did. Hiding in an elaborate camp in the woods of Maine, Knight survived by stealing supplies from nearby cabins, and took extreme measures to remain undetected. In The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel paints an empathic portrait of Knight as he seeks to understand why someone would choose to remove themselves from society for so long.

Christopher Knight grew up in Albion, Maine, one of six children. He reported no childhood trauma, though his parents encouraged self-sufficiency and were deeply private people. Christopher and his brothers performed well in school, and after graduating high school, Knight started working installing alarms. One day, he quit his job, cashed his final paycheck, and hit the road, eventually deciding to come back to Maine. He abandoned his car, and with a tent, backpack, and compass, set off to set up camp. Knight improved his camp by stealing various supplies from nearby cabins, including old issues of National Geographic magazine for flooring, plastic food storage containers, and even a mattress. Knight was very meticulous in the way he robbed cabins, often sneaking in through windows and occasionally removing doors from the hinges, and planning trips for supplies at times when he was less likely to be detected.

Michael Finkel contacts Christopher Knight after his arrest, hoping to gain some insight into why Knight would choose to live in isolation for so long. Despite many theories, including possibly being on the autism spectrum, Finkel never definitely determines why Knight chose to live in isolation for so long. Comparisons are made to famous hermits in the past, like Henry David Thoreau or those who chose isolation for religious reasons, but none of these comparisons neatly fit Knight’s experience. Knight comes across as being somewhat hostile to Finkel’s questioning, and it becomes clear that there will be no great insights gained from his experience.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story is the reaction from the locals from who Knight stole. Some viewed him as a harmless eccentric while others felt like their peace was violated by the constant threat of being robbed. Though Finkel’s portrayal of Knight leans to a sympathetic and somewhat romanticized view of him, it is clear that Knight is a complicated figure who defies characterization. Whether he is a folk hero who escaped the bounds of civilization or a thief who disturbed a community is left for the reader to decide. The Stranger in the Woods is a fast-paced, fascinating read, and is sure to generate interesting discussions about one’s role and responsibility to society.

Elizabeth Weislak is the Youth Services Coordinator for Alamance County Public Libraries. She may be reached at eweislak@alamancelibraries.org.