In 2013, a man who became nationally known as the “North Pond Hermit” was captured and arrested after living in the Maine woods for 27 years, surviving on food and supplies he stole from seasonal camps in central Maine.
Over the ensuing months, according to his attorney, about 500 journalists tried to contact that man, Christopher Knight. Only one, Michael Finkel, was granted that access.
On March 7, the result of Finkel’s work — a book titled “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit” — will be released by Knopf.
The book re-tills the fertile ground that led to Finkel’s GQ magazine story about the North Pond Hermit, but thankfully expands the story and gives Knight’s decidedly odd quest — a life lived outdoors and out of touch of other people — a historic perspective.
Hermits have been around us for thousands of years, Finkel explains, and in Knight the author believes he may have interviewed the most impressive known hermit in history.
It’s hard arguing that fact. Consider: After driving until his Subaru Brat was nearly out of gas, trading a large dirt road for smaller ones, then heading down a trail, he pulled over, put his keys on the center console and walked into the woods. He had no map or compass.
And he lived on his own for the next 27 years, only speaking with a few humans over that time. He never lit an actual fire, though he did burn propane. He essentially hibernated in the winter, afraid to leave tracks through the snow that would lead people back to his compound in the woods. And for years, he broke into area camps at least 1,000 times to replenish his dwindling supplies.
Finkel, who was living in Montana when he heard about Knight’s arrest and, more importantly, about the way the hermit had lived, reached out as many others did via mail. Knight sent a letter back, which paved the way for Finkel to visit the hermit — uninvited — nine times. The notes Finkel took during those visits, along with the extensive research that he conducted, form the backbone of a stunning look inside at the life and inner thoughts of one of our era’s most confounding characters.
And what a tale it is.
Finkel explores Knight’s upbringing and paints a picture of a quiet, introspective youth who grows into a curious but introverted man. The Knight who Finkel describes is a voracious reader and learner but is not very tolerant of most others. Included in the list of those who don’t gain Knight’s respect: Henry David Thoreau, whose well-documented trips into the wild earn him a title of “dilettante.”
“The Stranger in the Woods” is riveting, even for those of us here in Maine who devoured the near-daily news reports on Knight’s capture and think we’ve heard it all.
A tiny warning: In a state where our few celebrities are allowed to blend in and live their lives without undue harassment — see also: Stephen King — Finkel’s pursuit of the hermit’s tale, including uninvited trips to visit Knight in jail, feels (if not wrong), un-Mainey.
A larger issue: Finkel, while a gifted writer and storyteller, is not without warts that deserve mention. In the book, Finkel explained to Knight and readers, “I was a flawed journalist. In 2001, while writing a magazine article about child labor, I wove various interviews together to create a composite character, a storytelling method that is against the rules of journalism.”
That disclosure takes place early — on page 40 — and it may leave the reader focusing on the question no writer wants considered: “Can I trust what the writer is saying?”
In “The Stranger in the Woods,” that question lingers far too long, and that’s unfortunate. A simple editing change would have made the question moot. At the end of the book, a section titled “A Note on the Reporting” points out the pains Finkel took to ensure accuracy, including the fact that he hired two fact-checkers to confirm everything he’d written. If this afterword had instead been inserted as a foreword 190 pages earlier, Finkel could have put skeptical readers at ease.
Importantly, Finkel enters the fray as a skeptic himself and sought the opinions of dozens of others in order to answer a core question about Knight: Is the hermit telling the truth? The story is, after all, far-fetched.
His judgment and that of most of the people he talks with is that Knight was, in fact, an authentic hermit who lived a seemingly impossible life in the Maine woods for nearly 30 years.
The reader is left with a picture of Knight as neither hero nor hardcore villain but as a sympathetic figure who only sought to find his own place in an unwelcoming world.
In Finkel, Knight unintentionally found a biographer who could separate the fluff and flash from the meaningful and cast light on a character who has been a mystery ever since he emerged from the forest after his long adventure.