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Review - 'The Stranger in the Woods'

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Who among us hasn’t wanted to be left alone? Haven’t we all had moments when we wish for the peace and quiet of solitude?

But what if that solitude lasted for nearly three decades?

Michael Finkel’s book “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” (Knopf; $25.95) tells the story of one such man, a man who spent 27 years alone in the forests of central Maine.

The North Pond Hermit cast a long shadow over the residents of North Pond. For years, a mysterious someone was breaking into and burglarizing their homes. Stolen from these primarily seasonal residences were things like food, clothes, books and other supplies – money and valuables were left behind.

But in 2013, circumstances led to the capture of Christopher Knight as he was in the midst of burglarizing a summer camp. But it was what authorities discovered next that would truly astonish them. According to Knight’s claims, he had been living in isolation in the woods nearby since the mid-1980s.

Finkel was the sole journalist to speak to Knight at length, visiting him numerous times in jail and interviewing him about his experiences in solitude and the reasons behind the decision to essentially leave social interaction behind.

In addition, Finkel interviewed dozens of others – law enforcement officials, psychologist and medical professionals, North Pond residents – in an effort to tell the story of one man who wanted nothing more than to simply … disappear.

There’s no denying the compelling nature of the narrative put forth in “The Stranger in the Woods.” It is a simply fascinating story – his arrest in April of 2013 drew nationwide attention. Some expressed doubts that anyone could have survived in the manner that the hermit claimed. Others – particularly the victims of the 1,000-plus burglaries committed by Knight – expressed outrage at his many crimes. Still others turned the man into a folk hero of sorts, a character more myth than man. In many ways, Knight serves as a sort of cipher, a blank canvas upon which an outside observer can project their own ideas about the world.

Finkel even goes so far as to venture out into the woods himself to find and experience Knight’s camp, even spending a handful of nights in the same isolated and nigh-undetectable space in which the North Pond Hermit had existed in complete solitude since 1986. It is through the author’s clear connection that we the readers are able to connect in turn.

What Finkel’s book does so beautifully is render a complete picture – or at least, as complete a picture as the generally reticent Knight would allow – of a complex figure driven by complex motivations. This is a man who professed real guilt regarding his actions, yet expressed little in the way of actual regret; a man who no longer cared to keep up the pretense of being a part of the world, and so chose to walk away.

Concise and relatively short, “The Stranger in the Woods” is possessed of a readability that borders on the compulsive. Finkel draws the reader into the strange, insular world of the hermit – his exhaustive interviews buoyed by extensive research into the historical nature of solitude, building better understanding of Knight’s mindset through the exploration of other recluses and solitaries. Filled with details writ both large and small, the book allows a glimpse (albeit an unavoidably incomplete one) at the sort of man who would willingly embrace such a life.

The narrative of the North Pond Hermit is one that would likely be deemed too implausible for fiction, yet here we are. Christopher Knight’s story is a real one; while some might argue the feasibility of such a life, the general consensus is that the tale he related to Finkel is a true one.

In the end, “The Stranger in the Woods” tells the story of an outlier, someone whose very existence in many ways defies logic. It is a story whose like we’ll likely never see again; the combination of dense wilderness and proximity to civilization necessary to create someone like Christopher Knight is incredibly rare - and growing rarer by the day.

In a world increasingly dominated by constant connection, Christopher Knight achieved the ultimate disconnect. This book tries – and largely succeeds – in giving us an idea of why.

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