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

What would motivate a man to abandon society to live alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years? Author Michael Finkel does his best to answer this and many other questions in this study of Christopher Knight, “the last true hermit.”

North Pond and Little North Pond, located in the south part of Maine, are surrounded by vacation cabins, mostly used during the summer months. For 27 years, these cabins were plagued by break-ins and thefts. But the items stolen were unusual – a lot of food, men’s clothes, sleeping bags, flashlights, an occasional mattress, lots of books and lots of batteries. High value electronics, typically taken during burglaries, were left alone.

Rumors began to spread that this was all the work of one man, a hermit living in the woods. The cabin owners had different reactions – many were angry and installed better locks and security cameras while others left bags of books hanging from their front door knobs. Some laid in wait in their darkened cabins, hoping to catch the burglar in the act.

The hermit also became somewhat of an obsession for a couple of law enforcement officers. The frustrating thing about the hermit was that he was elusive, not even leaving footprints behind. One of these officers finally trapped the hermit using sensors that alerted when the hermit broke into one of his favorite food suppliers. The man they caught really surprised them.

The hermit, Christopher Knight, was a clean shaven, respectably dressed 47-year-old. His voice was rusty from lack of use for this was only the second time he’d used it in 27 years. Knight led the officers to his camp, which was only a 3 minute walk from the nearest cabin but so well hidden by boulders and trees that it was never discovered. Here, Knight had built a fortress from tarps, garbage bags, tents and magazines that protected him well enough to survive 27 harsh Maine winters. Only once did he seek shelter in one of the nearby cabins but the fear of getting caught prevented him from ever doing it again. He literally spent 27 years in the woods.

Journalist Michael Finkel heard about the hermit and became a little obsessed himself. He corresponded with a reluctant Knight several times and and also paid him several awkward visits in jail. Finkel found a man who was intelligent, well-read, highly uncomfortable with human interaction, suffering in his new environment and very ashamed that he stole from people.

Knight was not looking for a friend and soon shut Finkel out. However, Finkel was still able to craft a very interesting account of Knight’s experiences by supplementing the details from interviews with psychologists, law enforcement, high school classmates of Knight’s, cabin owners and people who knew Knight’s family. He even spent a few nights in Knight’s camp. He also presents a lot of information about hermits throughout history. I didn’t realize there was so much history and found some of the information really interesting.

I enjoyed “The Stranger in the Woods”. The subject kept my attention and the writing was high quality. As an added bonus, at only 224 pages it’s a quick read.

Thanks, Sally, for the recommendation!

Read any good nonfiction recently? Please share!

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5 thoughts on ““The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit”, by Michael Finkel

  1. I too read this book and found it completely fascinating. I picked it up because I found it hard to believe that a person could actually disappear from society for 27 years and all the while, be so close at hand. Further, I was intrigued by the fact that someone would choose to be alone for essentially the rest of his life (as he planned it). I too like some quiet time but 27 years is a bit excessive! This all combined with the fact that it occurred in Maine, a place known for brutal winters, made the story all the more interesting. This book is definitely worth the read!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Since you asked for nonfiction recommendations, I just finished “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande and highly recommend it. The author is a gifted writer and a physician, and he shares stories from his medical experience as well as his personal life. The book was especially relevant/timely for me as my parents become fragile with age, but there is something for all of us–since we are all mortal–to learn and ponder in this book. In fiction, I just finished the novel Commonwealth, already on the recommended list; I second that recommendation! I’m putting the hermit book on my library list. Thanks, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

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