“I haven’t written a book for 12 years,” said journalist Michael Finkel, “and for 12 years I looked for a story that I felt deserved a book-length treatment.” And then he met Christopher Thomas Knight, the man whose capture in 2013 ended an extraordinary 27 years of living entirely alone, cut off from all human contact, subsisting on pilfered food and fuel in a makeshift campsite in the Maine woods.
In “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” Finkel chronicles Knight’s story, one he calls “bizarre and weird and brilliant and disturbing.” The book draws on the author’s visits with Knight at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility, as well as the history of those who have sought solitude — from Henry David Thoreau (whom Knight disdained) to Tibetan Buddhist nuns. “Extraordinary things happen in solitude,” Finkel said. “Frightening things happen in solitude.”
The man known as the Maine Hermit inspired strong reactions, positive and negative. Knight was ashamed at having stolen — mostly food, propane, and books — but at the same time, Finkel described a man content in his solitude, at peace in his own company, and proud of his autonomy. “I’ve never encountered anyone remotely like Chris Knight,” he said, citing “the liveliness of his mind, the power of his brain.”
Knight’s story raised questions about how society handles “a person who doesn’t fit in,” Finkel said. “We don’t really have a place for people like him. By some measure of luck, Chris Knight chose just me to tell his tale. No other journalist was able to speak to him. He’s asked me not to contact him anymore, and I respect that. If he wants to give me an update, I’m happy to have it.”
Finkel will read 7 p.m. Wednesday at Harvard Book Store.