I have really mixed feelings about The Stranger in the Woods. I picked it up because I had heard good things and I remember reading the original magazine story about Christopher Knight and being enthralled. By the time I finished reading this book however, I felt kind of dirty and guilty for having read it. This book is an ethical quandary.
In 1986, Christopher Knight drove into the main forest and disappeared from society. It wasn’t until 27 years later when he would be arrested and forced back into the society he willingly left. For those 27 years, Knight made himself a home and became one with nature. He knew those Maine woods like the back of his hands and could traverse them without anyone noticing he was there.
People did start to notice the break-ins however. A propane tank here, some food there would just disappear from their homes. The town felt like it was being haunted. People would come home to find their homes broken into and clothing, supplies, and reading material gone. Some locals even started leaving offerings on their porches in the hopes that Knight would take them and stop breaking in. Too afraid of traps, Knight never took their offerings.
He made himself a home in the woods, almost completely camouflaged from the outside world. His shelter was secluded, but rather advanced in practical amenities. He had ways to deal with moisture, food, storage, and even a mattress. All of these stolen from the townspeople.
The town tried to catch Knight for years, but finally the local sheriff got ahold of some advanced technology and was alerted to Knight breaking into a local camp. The sheriff booked it over there and arrested him. After Knight’s arrest, this solitary man became a freak show that everyone wanted a piece of, including the author of this book, Michael Finkel. By writing him letters in jail, Finkel was able to get Knight to open up to him. Their relationship is full of ethical uncertainty.
Finkel drove to redeem himself after being fired from The New York Times when he admitted to creating a composite protagonist from interviews with multiple people for a story about the African slave trade. As a man trying to salvage his reputation, he was more than motivated to get a good story. Knight was that story. The problem is that although Knight was initially interested, he quickly became uncomfortable with Finkel and his pushy attempts to establish a connection and get more information. It’s one thing to write about people who don’t want to be written about, but it’s another to just foist yourself into their life and keep showing up unexpectedly after explicitly being asked to leave.