The Stranger in the Wood was the book on the top of the pile of my lockdown library. A fitting read for our current times.
A young man, Christopher Knight, inexplicably leaves his family, parks the car at the side of the road and disappears into the Maine woods to live alone for 27 years. That is until he is captured breaking into the kitchen of a children’s camp by a zealous ex Marine and local park warden and the game is up.
In this expertly researched book, Finkel examines Knight’s early life, his loner tendencies and his motivations for leaving. He visits Knight’s camp and interviews local residents, from whom Knight stole.
I guess we all have idealised notions of what a hermit should be and, romantically want them to be a rebel with a cause, whether it is disenchantment with modern life, a desire to go back to nature or a spiritual calling. In this Knight disappoints.
He is a hermit unable to shake his addiction to late 20th century American culture. Despite being an able hunter and fisherman, Knight chose to live close to civilization and steal food from the summer cabins dotted around the nearby lake.
His diet consists primarily of junk food. The kind of American food likely to give you scurvy. He has a thing for Mac N cheese, Mountain Dew and marshmallows. He steals trashy novels, he steals radios, he even steals a portable tele and, when discovered, his camp contained a dump with 20 odd years of plastic litter slowly degrading into the forest. It is hard to find any of this laudable.
What did strike me as admirable though was his complete lack of desire to ‘tell his story.’ How deeply refreshing in this day and age. He didn’t want to share his insights, he just wanted to be left alone.
Unfortunately for Knight, Finkel’s fascination with the story just won’t let up and, after an exchange of letters, he, uninvited, flies across the country and visits Knight in jail and follows this up by invading his families home. This persistence feels intrusive but it pays off and he manages to win Knights confidence and prise his story out of him.
In some ways, where the book works best, for me, is not in this personal tale but in placing it in context of historical account of hermits and explorations of the psychological make up of the people who would choose this life.
Christopher Knight is clearly a man who doesn’t fit in society, who finds interaction with other people an exhausting performance and feels he can only truly be himself when alone.
After two weeks of lockdown with the world suddenly online and the blinking eye of my laptop invading my living room I know how he feels.
Shut in the towns unable to escape, the thought of vanishing into the nearest woods is suddenly even more compelling.
The story of someone who truly went into retreat and found solace in being alone felt strangely refreshing. But before I disappear I think I will pack something more nutritious than Mac N Cheese