When word broke that the man who had been stealing from residents of the North Pond area of central Maine for nearly three decades had been caught, Mainers were captivated by the tale that emerged of Christopher Knight’s life. As the decades had passed, many believed the rumored hermit of North Pond was a myth.
Michael Finkel’s engrossing new book, “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” makes clear that Knight was very much a real person.
The main story Finkel tells in this book is familiar to anyone who followed news reports of Knight’s arrest or who read Finkel’s 2014 GQ article, on which this book is based. It is the story of a young man who, at age 20, literally walked away from his job, his family, his responsibilities and society. He set out into the forest of Maine without food or supplies for living outside for even one night, let alone 27 years.
This story, for the most part, comes completely from Knight himself. Finkel exchanged handwritten letters with Knight while he was jailed and had nine jail visits with him. Since Knight supposedly lived alone and had practically no contact with people during his many years in the woods, his version of the “truth” of his experience – and his alone – is all we have.
Finkel unreservedly believes Knight, but he acknowledges that not everyone is sold on Knight’s story. Most residents of North Pond think Knight’s claims of never using a fire to heat his camp, that he never got sick or needed medical care, that he had no contact with his family (who never reported him missing) and that he spent every night in his camp, even through life-threatening winter conditions, are flat-out lies.
The author believes that Knight is “practically incapable of lying,” but he doesn’t provide enough evidence to support that. Knight lived an extreme lifestyle and worried about getting caught. To make his survival possible, he developed skills that enabled him to move stealthily among the residents of North and Little ponds. He studied these people so he knew their patterns and he went through their homes and their personal belongings. Intentionally or not (he claims not), he terrorized those residents for years. Is a person who is capable of doing all that incapable of lying?
In other areas, the evidence Finkel supplies to support Knight’s story as he tells it is strong. There’s the physical evidence of Knight’s camp, the decades of experiences of the residents of North and Little ponds, and the expertise (and belief) of law enforcement and other professionals who examined Knight and his case.
Finkel is a skilled storyteller, and those skills are clearly present in this book as he weaves psychoanalysis and medicine, the mechanics of outdoor survival and centuries of hermit history with Knight’s life story to create a tightly written, compelling narrative.
Finkel has written for National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and other major publications. His 2005 book “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa,” was made into a movie (“True Story,” starring Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones, released in 2015).