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  • Ken Ilgunas

Book Review: Stranger in the Woods

This is a fun, delightful read about a hermit who lived in the Maine woods for 27 years. The hermit, Christopher Knight, stole food, clothes, and books from nearby homeowners. According to Knight, Knight said one word (“hi”) to one person (a random hiker) during those 27 years. He is eventually caught by a law enforcement official and imprisoned for his crimes. Knight is not a guy who we’re going to revere or glorify the way we might revere other hermits, such as a Henry David Thoreau or a Chris McCandless. We look to hermits to tell us a bit about ourselves; to deliver a little sage wisdom from a mountaintop or a cabin in the woods. Knight has his moments of wisdom, but he’s neither sage nor lovable hero. Knight stole, drank, and ate a lot of sugar, which rotted his teeth. He’s cranky and arrogant. He looks down on the rest of humanity, even though Knight admits that many of his deeds were far from pardonable. He can’t be looked up to. But just because we can’t look up to him doesn’t mean we can’t be intrigued by him. What made him take off into the woods? Was it something from Knight’s past? These are questions that largely go unanswered, despite the author’s great efforts to understand and connect with his subject. There were times I wanted the author to dissect Knight’s brain a bit more: to help Knight articulate why he ventured out into the woods. The book seems to be something of an unsolved mystery. But if this is its weakness, it’s also its strength: It gives you, as reader, space to interpret and wonder. And you can’t place any blame on the author: he may have been dealing with the most reticent man alive, and the author made more than half a dozen (sometimes fruitless) trips from his home in Montana to Maine to get to the bottom of things. I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of Knight’s predicament. (Wishing to be sent to solitary confinement when he’s in jail, having to move into his mom’s house as a middle-age man, brusquely rejecting the author’s earnest overtures.) And yet there are moments when I felt deeply for Knight. I rooted for Knight to either find some happy compromise with society, or to just disappear again into the woods, where he belongs. Perhaps this book would have benefited from not being published so soon. We might have gotten more satisfying closure if the book was published a few years later. But I don’t fault the author for seizing on a grand story in timely fashion. There will likely be a second edition, and maybe by the time the movie comes out (it needs to be adapted!) we’ll have such an ending. Knight may have been an extremist in his quest for solitude, but he was not crazy. The book is a comedy, tragedy, and mystery, but also a paean to solitude, to the contentment that comes from being alone; to the simple joy of melting into the natural world. One of the underlying messages of the book, which I’m on board with, is that there’s nothing crazy or wrong or even weird about wanting to be alone. For many, it’s a luxury. For some, a necessity.


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