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Wanda's Book Reviews

I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles.  (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).

The Stranger in the Woods / Michael Finkel

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit - Michael Finkel

Many people dream of escaping modern life, but most will never act on it. This is the remarkable true story of a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, making this dream a reality--not out of anger at the world, but simply because he preferred to live on his own.

In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life--why did he leave? what did he learn?--as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.


What an oddly fascinating little book! Even though I am very definitely an introvert, I cannot imagine existing in the way that Chris Knight chose to live for nearly three decades. He wandered off into the wilds of Maine in 1986 with next to no planning and next to no supplies. He managed to find himself a sheltered campsite, right alongside civilization, where he existed in a tent even during the cold of Maine winters. Mind you, he could never have achieved it without pilfering supplies from nearly all of his civilized neighbours.

Mr. Knight might still be out there, still not speaking to other humans, if he had found a way to support himself without specializing in home break-ins. I can’t conceive of not letting my family know where I am and that I’m okay. I may withhold details of my holiday locations to prevent the more neurotic from pestering my tour company unnecessarily, but I generally try to email or Facebook if I think there will be any concern. Chris Knight just wandered out into the landscape without letting anyone know anything. He also abandoned a partially paid for truck that his brother (who had co-signed the loan) was stuck paying for without the benefit of being able to drive it.

It seems like there is a tendency among a certain segment of humanity to seek solitude. The author, Michael Finkel, provides just enough history of religious hermits, recluses, and other people seeking seclusion to be interesting without being overwhelming. It rapidly becomes clear, however, that it is very difficult to avoid human interaction even under those circumstances. And most of us don’t want to completely avoid other humans.

Mr. Knight’s whole family seems to be rather taciturn and isolationist, so in some ways his behaviour is no surprise. I do feel rather sorry for him, now that he has been returned to society and must deal with people again. It is obvious from Finkel’s observations that it is a great hardship for him. In this regard, he is certainly not neural-normative. I hope he can find some way to exist somewhat happily in the world.