2017-10-26 / Opinions

Book Review

The Stranger in the Woods
By MICHAEL FINKEL
Reviewed by
PEGGY BARNETT

The Stranger in the Woods opens with “the hermit” moving through the forest. “He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken.” The author, Michael Finkel, was not there, but he visited the area a number of times later, and the hermit described to him how he managed to go undetected.

In that first chapter, the hermit is careful to leave no footprints as he travels around North Pond in Maine, past several cabins, to the Pine Tree summer camp. It is not summer. There is probably food, even some left-overs from last summer, in the kitchen. He finds the key that he had hidden under a rock, stops at an unlocked truck to grab some candy and a watch left there, and enters the dining hall. He manages to avoid the motion lights and cameras that he knows are installed there (chiefly because of him). He is hungrily stuffing his backpack with food when the scene changes.

Game Warden Terry Hughes is awakened by the alarm beep from a sensor that he has installed in the freezer at the camp. Four separate law agencies and many residents around North Pond have been trying to catch whoever is taking things from the houses and the camp for over twenty years. They are calling him the hermit. He does almost no damage, no vandalism. What he steals is of little value: flashlights, batteries, books, tools, mostly food. Some people are intrigued, even leaving bags of items and food on the doorknobs when they leave in the fall. (These are never taken.) Others, however, are indignant, angry, and worried.

On this night, the hermit is captured. He admits that he is the thief and even leads the officers to his hidden camp. The whole community is thrilled that he has been caught, but he reveals nothing about himself except his name. He is not accustomed to talking! Out in Montana, writer Michael Finkel reads about it. He is something of an outdoorsman, loves solitude, but he and his wife have had three babies in three years – “an experience that bestows various blessings, though not one permitting much quiet time in the forest.”

Finkel is, in a sense, sympathetic, and wants to know more. He writes to the hermit (whose name is Christopher Knight) at the jail, hoping for a response. Somewhat to his surprise, he does get a response. Not exactly unfriendly, Knight wants only to be left alone.

Finkel researches hermits (he says there are three kinds), interviews neighbors (Knight has had few friends when young), and finally has nine conversations with Knight, most when he was in jail. The author and the reader want to understand this strange man, why he escaped civilization in the first place and how he survived for such a long time all alone.

“Forced isolation is one of the oldest known punishments.” Why would someone choose it voluntarily? How important is solitude and quiet? Knight’s only relationship was between himself and the forest. What effect did those years have on his health? In addition to the interest we have in this unusual man and his future, these questions sustain our absorption in The Stranger in the Woods. It is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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