Published by Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date: March 7, 2017
Genres: Biography, Book Clubs, Non-fiction
In case this news slipped by you, as it did me: In 2013 a man was apprehended at a children’s summer camp in northern Maine stealing food and supplies. Not particularly interesting except that when asked by the police he can tell them his birth date, but not how old he is—he has no idea what year it is. Further questioning reveals he has no address, no vehicle, no mail, none of the accoutrements of modern day life. Christopher Knight, a 47-year-old, white, male has been living alone in the woods for 27 years and The Stranger in the Woods is his story. The book is written by Michael Finkel, a journalist, which makes sense, because if you’ve willingly lived in complete isolation for two decades you’re probably not going to suddenly get all chatty and write a book.
Thankfully, Finkel does all the work for those of us stymied by every aspect of this case.The Stranger in the Woods is the result of four months of letter writing between the two men, a series of visits in jail, and interviews with others involved with the case. The others include some of the many people Knight burglarized during his time in the woods. He did not survive by hunting or fishing, but by stealing from the homes and the camp in the community around the lake. This is one of the areas that makes his story so complicated. He only took what he needed, never destroyed or vandalized property, but over time created a sense of fear in home owners. In catching Knight, the local police solved one of the longest running, most prolific burglary cases in the nation.
But how self-reliant was Knight, really? This is one of the confusing questions that occurred to me again and again while reading the book. He didn’t want to be around people and found the values of society to be abhorrent. Fine. He wanted a simpler life, but he couldn’t and didn’t sustain life on his own. He stole. He took the goods earned by others to live life the way he wanted. He left those people with fear that something dangerous lurked in what they believed to be their own quiet retreat. For his own peace and way of life, he made others feel unsafe.
What Finkel has done in The Stranger in the Woods is carefully and thoroughly portray the facts of Knight’s case, while at the same time showing the many textures that can accompany truth. I was surprised at how sad and conflicted the book left me. Sad because Knight knew how he wanted to live, but could not. And conflicted because stealing to live the way you want is not acceptable. Knight himself knew this and never made any attempt to say he was innocent. Despite his crime, he comes off as an honorable man forced into an untenable position.
The book ends without any sort of positive resolution and left me wondering about so many things: societal pressure to interact, why wanting isolation is seen as a personality defect or problem, the right to determine the best life for each individual. This book is a wonderful choice for book clubs because of the discussions it would engender. It’s a literary litmus test—those who would be incredulous at someone wanting to go decades without speaking to another human being versus those who would not only find it plausible but understandable. My bet is there are more of the latter out there than you might think.