cover image The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit

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

Michael Finkel. Knopf, $25.95 (208p) ISBN 978-1-101-87568-1

On a summer morning in 1986, 20-year-old Christopher Knight didn’t show up for his job installing alarm systems in Waltham, Mass. Nearly three decades passed before he reappeared and revealed he’d spent most of that time camping in the woods of central Maine. In this fascinating account of Knight’s renunciation of humanity, Finkel (True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa) struggles to comprehend the impulses that led Knight to court death by hypothermia even though his family home was less than an hour’s drive away. To survive, Knight relentlessly pilfered supplies from vacation houses around his campsite, infuriating and terrifying homeowners and baffling a generation of cops. Finally apprehended during one of his raids, the “Hermit of North Pond” battled depression and contemplated suicide as he was forced to rejoin society. Drawn by the details that followed Knight’s arrest, Finkel reached out to him through letters and visits. Despite frequent rebuffs, enough of a relationship developed for Finkel to broadly outline Knight’s wilderness solitude. A fellow outdoorsman, Finkel places Knight in the long tradition of hermits, a category that has been admired and distrusted over the centuries. Yet even as Finkel immerses himself in Knight’s life—researching hermits, consulting psychologists, even camping at Knight’s hideaway—his subject’s motivations remain obscure, leaving the book somehow incomplete. The book doesn’t penetrate the mystery of Knight’s renunciation, but the questions it raises remain deeply compelling. (Mar.)