Review: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

Modern life seems set up so that we can avoid loneliness at all costs, but maybe it’s worthwhile to face it occasionally. The further we push aloneness away, the less we are able to cope with it, and the more terrifying it gets. Some philosophers believe that loneliness is the only true feeling there is.

In 1986, twenty year-old Christopher Thomas Knight walked into the woods in Maine, abandoning his car, his job, his family, and his life. For the next twenty-seven years, until he was caught, Knight lived in the harsh woods of Maine, surviving by stealing food and other necessaries from the inhabitants of the cabins and camps around North Pond, Maine. During that entire twenty-seven years, the only contact he had with another human occurred during one chance encounter with hikers, limited to the word “hi” and a wave. After he was caught, Knight ultimately plead guilty to a handful of the estimated one thousand burglaries he committed over that quarter century and was forced to live again in society. The Stranger in the Woods is the story of Knight’s survival—both in the woods and once forced out—as well as the story of how Finkel came to meet Knight and come to terms with how he chose to live.

White Privilege
This is most decidedly not what I was supposed to take from this book, but I spent large portions of this book with the phrase “White Privilege” going off like an alarm in the back of my head. The Stranger in the Woods is the story of how a man committed something around one thousand burglaries, including multiple burglaries of a camp for children with disabilities, in order to live alone without human contact. No matter his reason, no matter how sympathetic a character he appears, Christopher Knight is a man who burglarized and terrorized a community for twenty-seven years. Sure, some residents found it mostly harmless to lose the occasional book, pack of chicken, and roll of toilet paper. But others, understandably, felt violated. It wasn’t the value of what was taken, but the idea that someone had been in your house, going through your things. (As someone whose home was burglarized five years ago, I can attest—this is definitely a thing.) Despite all of this, Finkel paints him sympathetically—explains his reasons for why he committed “break-ins” (not “burglaries”), emphasizes how he suffered during his self-imposed exile. I cannot imagine anyone writing or agreeing to publish a book with so sympathetic an eye towards a black man who committed a thousand burglaries. And so there we have it. While The Stranger in the Woods is fascinating and well-written, it’s also unsettling in a way Finkel almost certainly never intended it to be. (Of course, I should probably acknowledge here that Finkel is himself an able-bodied, cis-white male.)

If The Stranger in the Woods were simply a straight-forward factual rendition of how Knight came to move into, survive, and then be caught in the Maine woods, the book would (frankly) be boring and incredibly short. Outside of explaining how he managed to survive through impossible winters, there’s not a lot to say about the twenty years Knight spent in the forest.

Finkel fleshes out what could otherwise be a boring tenth grade biography essay with his own story of Knight agreed to meet him alone of all the journalists clamoring for interviews as well as his own journeys hiking into Knight’s camp. This choice adds more a human-interest angle. The reader is expected to (and I did) identify more with Finkel, so by inserting himself into the story, there’s an easier and quicker connection. We also learn more about Knight in his interacting with/against Finkel than we would with Finkel merely reciting facts. Our meeting Knight this way is far more effective and a credit to Finkel for showing the reader, rather than just telling.

The other major element of the book is Finkel’s lengthy asides into the history of hermits, the value and meaning of solitude, Asperger’s disorder/Autism spectrum disorders (a tentative diagnosis given to Knight after his capture), suffering, cognition, time, and death. Finkel boils down theories and philosophies to present relatively neat packages against which Knight is presented. As you can likely imagine, he fits neatly almost nowhere, which is, likely, the larger point. These sections are where the real value of the book was for me. I enjoyed the theories, the quotes, and their application to the person of Knight.

Exploitation / Permission
Even if I found him a less sympathetic character than I was intended to, Knight is still a human being entitled to own his own story. Finkel quite literally inserted himself into Knight’s story and has made money selling books about Knight’s story. I had concerns throughout the book that The Stranger in the Woods was exploitative of Knight.   Towards almost the very end of his narrative, Finkel relates a series of conversations he had with Knight that had him worried Knight was about to end his life rather than continue to live in the society in which he did not fit. As part of this exchange, he notes that Knight conveyed to him that “after [Knight’s] gone…I can tell his story anyway I want.” Knight calls Finkel his “Boswell” (his biographer). So it would seem Knight gave Finkel permission…except Knight isn’t gone. So did he or did he not have permission to publish this information?

On the one hand, Knight gave him as close to explicit permission as you can get. On the other, it was conditional and has brought more scrutiny to Knight than would have if there were no book published—I had certainly never heard of the North Pond hermit and likely wouldn’t have if The Stranger in the Woods hadn’t been published and then reviewed in Time magazine (which is where I heard of it and decided to add it to my TBR list). One of the things that is very clear in Finkel’s book is that Knight loathed attention. That being caught and subject to the mini-media frenzy was the last thing he wanted. Had he been able to live as he wanted, he would have eventually died in the woods and remained unfound, unsung, unmourned. By publishing this book before Knights death, did Finkel violate one of Knight’s conditions for permission? It’s unlikely we’ll know since Knight himself is perhaps the last person on earth who would ever issue a public statement or talk to a reporter about he feels about this potential violation. Ultimately, it isn’t clear if The Stranger in the Woods is a celebration of Knight or the most glaring of the violations of Knight’s privacy after he was caught.

For all of the hesitancy I have after reading this book—particularly around privilege and permission—I still can’t help feeling like I want to recommend it. It was well-written. The pace and philosophical asides (which, admittedly, only skim the surface of the deeper themes) were well-done. It is a compelling, relatively quick read. If you aren’t troubled by the privilege and permission issues that lurk under the surface, it is a book that many would find highly enjoyable and intriguing. (So I guess sorry/not-sorry for introducing those issues to you that may now hamper your reading of the book). Knight’s way of life is challenging to contemplate and there is always value in reading about someone whose life is so different from yours that you cannot fathom living as they did. (I joke that I could do without people, but at the end of the day, I could never actually live as a hermit. At least, not without my dog to talk to.) So I leave it to you—if you can look past the two major issues above, it’s a book I recommend. If reading books where people use but never acknowledge privilege, it’s not going to be for you.

Published: March 7, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Michael Finkel
Date read: December 17, 2017
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

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