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Review: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

Once upon a time, a man called Christopher Knight got into his car and drove. He drove although he didn’t know where he was going, and he didn’t stop until he reached the woods. He abandoned his car, never to see it again, and there he lived for nearly 30 years, away from everything he ever knew. In this true story, Michael Finkel explores the life of “the last true hermit”. And though I didn’t love it, the book certainly gave me a lot to think about.

I picked this book because I have a slightly unhealthy obsession with survivalist literature, and a tentative curiosity about hermits. I mean, who hasn’t contemplated giving it all up and becoming a social outcast? We’ve all had that kind of day where we’ve just felt so fed up with the world – and with people ugh – that we feel so monumentally tempted to just sell our shit and fuck off to Tibet forever. It sounds so fun for a while, so freeing. But then of course the practicalities are considered and you start thinking about how rubbish you are at building a tent and what would you eat anyway and could you realistically live without the internet? It’s a good little exercise in gratitude really; when you’re feeling down about society and how free you certainly are not, consider the benefits of supermarkets and indoor plumbing. And NETFLIX. A life in isolation, a pariah of society, is a thought we often entertain but would never go through with. So obviously I wanted to read the story of a man who actually did.

“I have only in my life carried to an extreme what you have not dared to carry halfway, and what’s more, you have taken your calendars for good sense, and I found comfort in deceiving ourselves. So that perhaps, after all, there is more life in me than you.”

A well-rounded novel, there’s a little bit of something for everyone here. We explore Knight’s past and his initial escape to the woods, his survival techniques, his life of crime. We also delve into his mental health and spend quite a few chapters comparing him to other famous hermits throughout history, and why they did it. Though I recognize this book as a work of investigative journalism, I was less inclined to read all the quotes from hermits that weren’t Knight, to read about their philosophies when really I just wanted some true-life survivalism.

I was definiely interested in what Knight had to say. Finkel really painted a picture of the hermit that had to be very close to life. The man was very socially inept, opinionated to a fault and somewhat aggressively made his feelings known, and definitely with a sense of superiority. He was uncaring about anyone but himself, which goes to show the state of mind it takes for someone to leave society.

“His brother Joel co-signed the loan. “He did such a nice thing for me, and I screwed him on that,” Knight said. “I still owe him.”

He stole supplies from holiday cabins not far from his camp, probably the only thing I really fault him for. But he always knew what he was doing was wrong, he apologized profusely and made it known to his interviewer that he wished to be portrayed in the book with the good and the bad, flaws and all. He didn’t particularly think of himself as a good person.

I think this is one of those books that is perfect for a book club, it inspired such debate in me, and I still don’t know if I’ve made my mind up on the matter. I may not like Knight as a person but I relate to him entirely. He is one of so many in our society that doesn’t fit into one of the boxes the “powers that be” expects us to.

“I am a square peg,” he says. Everybody he encounters, he feels, it’s smashing it him, pounding on him, trying to jump him into a round hole. Society seems no more welcoming to him before he left. He feels he may be forced to take psychotropic medicines, drugs or mess with his brain, when he already knows exactly how to fix everything.”

Society is a man-made concept, so how do you find peace within it when you know it’s fake and it doesn’t really matter? Knight chose to follow his happiness and exile himself but he was never free to make that decision for himself. As a human he was never free to opt-out of the law, he lived illegally and he stole food and supplies, actions which he eventually paid for. It’s easy to say that it’s good that we can’t ever escape society, people would be free to commit the most atrocious crimes. But it comes down to this tendency we have as humans to act in ways that benefit the most amount of people. We enforce our laws because it keeps society running. There’s no leniency for Knight, who wasn’t hurting anyone with this actions; punishing him and not allowing him to continue to live in isolated happiness was “best for society”, even though it robbed him of his happiness and left him suicidal.

It makes me wish that morality was so much more clean-cut. There’s no definitive answer to the question “is it better to consider the needs of the many over the needs of the few?” I don’t want to forget about the few, the square pegs that are continuously forced into round holes. I don’t think anyone on this earth is a round peg capable of fitting those societal round holes, but I think a lot of us are octagons, and we can squeeze ourselves in (in a pinch). But the square pegs will never fit, and what of them, condemned to their misery because it benefits the octagon pegs? Christopher Knight was never a criminal, he just wanted to experience the freedom that everyother animal has on this earth apart from humans. How can I call him wrong when I don’t believe in Divine governance, when the only ones ruling us are humans, just as equal as the rest, who imprison the square pegs just because they disagree with them? And that’s all laws are: self-inflicted rules to benefit the many. Or the rich. Or the establishment.

Depending in which context you define ‘better’, yes maybe it is better to have or society working this way.  At the very least, it’s easier. For me. For most. But if I were Christopher Knight, so deeply depressed just by being around other people, capable of living in the wild without hurting anyone, I wouldn’t give a damn about the probation society placed on me. I’d get in the car and get back to my bliss, and I’d never stop fighting for my truth.


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  1. Sounds very interesting! If you like survivalist books try One Man’s Wilderness, The Final Frontiersman & Into The Wild.



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