Books/Reading

Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods

Genre: Nonfiction | Biography

Star Rating: 3-1/2 out of 5 stars

Synopsis from The StoryGraph: In 1986, a shy and intelligent twenty-year-old named Christopher Knight left his home in Massachusetts, drove to Maine, and disappeared into the forest. He would not have a conversation with another human being until nearly three decades later, when he was arrested for stealing food. Living in a tent even through brutal winters, he had survived by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to store edibles and water, and to avoid freezing to death. He broke into nearby cottages for food, clothing, reading material, and other provisions, taking only what he needed but terrifying a community never able to solve the mysterious burglaries. Based on extensive interviews with Knight himself, this is a vividly detailed account of his secluded life–why did he leave? what did he learn?–as well as the challenges he has faced since returning to the world. It is a gripping story of survival that asks fundamental questions about solitude, community, and what makes a good life, and a deeply moving portrait of a man who was determined to live his own way, and succeeded.

Having finished this book up over the long holiday weekend, I wanted to take a little bit of time to mull over the concepts in it, and I’m still not sure how I feel about this book (and not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing). Chris Knight chose to literally walk away from society – one statement he gives in an interview with the author after he had been caught and was incarcerated says he just didn’t want to interact with people anymore. The book bills his extraordinary feat of surviving 27 years in the wild as an incredible feat of personal reflection, hermitism, and understanding who he was as an individual outside of society’s strictures (and those 27 years included 27 winters in northern Maine which is not easy, even if you live in a house with heat and running water – just moving the snow around is almost a full-time job. I say this having lived for 4 years in northern Vermont, about 50 miles south of the Canadian border. Winters are no joke there.) I applaud all of that. I agree in today’s society, no one really understands the deep silence of being completely alone.

But here’s the thing, he wasn’t really alone. Except in the dead of winter when things were too snowy/iced in to have people around, this was a vacation community where he could hear people boating, fishing, hiking, hunting. No… he didn’t interact with them, but they were there. And he also took advantage of the fact that he lived near to a number of summer cabins, as well as year-round residencies, where he broke in consistently (he estimates over a thousand break-ins), to steal food, clothing, outdoor gear, batteries and propane. So even if he didn’t interact on a personal level with the people who lived around him, he still interacted with their homes, their belongings, and to some extent modern technology.

That’s where I had a disconnect with this book. He wasn’t living off the land (hunting, fishing, gathering or foraging – I don’t count taking nonperishable and perishable food items as foraging, although perhaps he did), and there is no way he would have survived in this climate without a shelter and warmth and a way to melt snow for drinking water. So did he really divorce himself from society and achieve some greater/higher spiritual moment? Or was he just someone who had loner tendencies and didn’t want the stress of constantly trying to engage with society while he lived off other people’s food stuffs and personal items.

Have you read this title? If so, what did you think about Knight and how the author presented him in this book?

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Stranger in the Woods

  1. I don’t think I would be able to enjoy this one, for the reasons you mentioned toward the end. Living off the grid and stealing from others for a living is not the same as becoming a hermit and living off the land.

    1. Yah – I tried to find the noble and good in this but I struggled with it being presented as such. Whatever his motivations, he was obviously a person who struggled with society and social norms/expectations and I empathize with that. But not the choices he made to achieve his separation from society.

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