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

When a man is arrested for stealing food in a remote vacation town in Maine, nobody really expected what was to follow. The man who was arrested is Christopher Knight, a man who spent almost thirty years in complete isolation from society and from his fellow human beings. What makes Knight’s story unique (aside from breaking some unknown record of never talking to human beings) is that he is likely responsible for over 1,000 burglaries in the area surrounding the forest where he lived. The hook is firmly set. With a premise like this, it’s hard not to pick this book up.

But picking the book up and keeping it open are two different things. Fortunately, Michael Finkel is an adept writer. Finkel explores not only Christopher Knight’s specific story–from his intentions to his methodology to his instruction for how he must be portrayed–but also other cases of extreme isolation and their consequences. Through this, some interesting questions are raised: What causes so many people to cave to the effects of isolation in such a short time frame, and how is Christopher Knight different? 

Well, there are plenty of examples of what makes Christopher Knight unique. He seems to be a man full of contradictions. He is very reluctant of others, but he allows a journalist to document his story. He is considered a folk hero among many alternative thinkers, yet he is also responsible for a shocking number of break-ins. Even after he is arrested, the legal system also appears at a loss for how to handle the situation. And in a final contradiction, you will adore Michael Finkel’s telling of this tale, while also feeling profound unease at the lengths he’s gone through to secure that story.

It is these contradictions, these shades of gray, that allow The Stranger in the Woods to transcend other non-fiction works that deal with long-term isolation. It offers a case study that cannot be replicated in a lab. It gives us a glimpse into a man who achieved a startling fantasy that many modern people chase in half-steps: the ability to shut the world off completely, whether it be for a short while, or for 27 years.

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