Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Worth a Visit

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True HermitThe Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author shares his fascination with the story of Christopher Knight, who disappeared into the Maine woods in 1978 and was discovered 27 years later as the mysterious thief who'd become legendary in the local lake town. What makes a person withdraw from society? How does a thief not get caught for 27 years? These are the central questions driving the story, backed up by credible interviews and research.

Finkel calls Knight "the last true hermit" because all those years Knight had no intended interaction with another human being. Many disagree with Finkel's definition. Traditionally a hermit's withdrawn from society for spiritual reasons. In modern times, it can be a matter of philosophy or politics, too. A true hermit lives in seclusion, not isolation. Knight describes his walking into the woods as more of a whim, though it's obvious it was a compulsion. And it's hard to believe that he didn't pick his only ever job—working on home security alarms—with thieving in mind. Knight's certainly a recluse, but to call him a hermit is to reduce the stature of every non-thieving hermit in history. It's no wonder the unofficial arbiter of modern hermits, the Hermitary, refuses Knight membership.

Knight admits it is wrong to steal, but he did it; despite having made ingenious solutions to surviving Maine winters, he developed his skills in skulking and thieving instead of self-support. The residents of that Maine lake town seem to mostly hate or admire him; the break-ins, while Knight made sure to attack only empty houses, were frequent and some residents lived in fear while others left offerings of books and candy over the years.

It is indeed fascinating to read all about it and decide if you'd call him a nuisance, a bogeyman, a freak, or a lost soul. But not a hermit.

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