The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (Biography)

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit 

Michael Finkel (Adult Biography)

There are three general groups that hermits can be divided into to explain why they seek isolation: protesters (those who detest what the world has become), pilgrims (often referred to as religious hermits), and pursuers (those seeking alone time for artistic reasons, scientific insight, or self-understanding).  Twenty-year-old Christopher Knight didn’t fit into any of these categories.  In 1986, for reasons unknown, he simply turned his back on the world and disappeared into the Maine woods for twenty-seven years—nearly 10,000 days.  By all accounts, Chris Knight was the most solitary-known person in all of human history and journalist Michael Finkel was about to share his unimaginable story with the world.

According to John Donne, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent.”  The same held true for Chris Knight.  He sought detachment, but needed essentials to survive and those essentials belonged to other people.  He was an island desperately needing food, clothing, and materials to ensure his survival in the harshest of elements and so Knight resorted to stealing from his fellow man.  To avoid detection for so long, he adhered to a strict set of rules: strike only after midnight, travel from rock to root or on ice to avoid leaving footprints, don’t steal from permanent residents, and take only pre-packaged or canned goods to avoid possible poisoning.  Aside from thievery, Knight held himself to a strict moral code and avoided personal contact at all costs.  But in life, nothing is certain except change and death and Knight’s idyllic world would soon come to a close without either incident or fanfare.

Because Knight kept no written account of his life, Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods is an extensive compilation of conversations with Knight (nine one-hour sessions over the course of two months); insights from psychologists, neuroscientists, and experts on autism; books on isolation, hermits, and solitude; and interviews with Knight’s family, neighbors, victims, and local law enforcement.  It is an exhaustive, profound, and gripping account of one man’s desire to be alone, yet was never lonely.  A man whose defiance to live according to societal norms brought him admiration from survivalists, condemnation from the violated, and contempt from the hermit community.  It’s ironic that a man determined to walk invisibly for so many years managed to leave such a large imprint on so many when all was said and done. 

History views banishment, solitary confinement, and marooning as the most severe forms of punishment.  For Chris Knight, he not only sought these conditions, he thrived in them.  Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” In his twenty-seven years alone in the Maine wilderness, Chris Knight managed to say only one audible word.  Looking back now, I’m sure he feels that that single word was one word too many.  

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Heft by Liz Moore

Heft

Heft 

Liz Moore (Adult Fiction)

Arthur Opp hasn’t been weighed in years.  Back then, he was 480 pounds, but he’s probably between 500 and 600 pounds now.  He lives in isolation in an aging yet expensive brownstone in Brooklyn and hasn’t taught a college class in eighteen years.  Kel Keller is seventeen, athletic, and popular amongst his friends.  He’s a poor kid from Yonkers who attends an affluent school and dreams of playing professional baseball.  What these two very different people don’t realize is that they have something in common…a woman by the name of Charlene Turner.  Charlene is Kel’s mother and Arthur’s former student and she is about to alter both their lives when she decides to pick up the phone and ask Arthur for a simple favor.  Suddenly, Arthur is forced to open himself up to the outside world while Kel is forced to open his eyes to discover the girl his mother used to be.

I really enjoyed Heft and was impressed with Moore’s proficiency in writing as a middle-aged ex-professor struggling with obesity and isolation and then as a teenaged boy caught between the worlds of poverty and prosperity while dealing with his mother’s insecurities.  The story moved along at a nice pace and rarely lagged, even through multiple character flashbacks.  There were several supporting and interesting characters in the story, but the one that stood out to me was Arthur’s maid, Yolanda.  She’s a spitfire and truly the yin to Arthur’s yang.  We see a whole new side of Arthur when Yolanda is around and that was a pleasure to experience.  Despite the praise, I did have a few issues with this book that prevented me from giving it a full five-star rating.

The first problem I had (might not be as big a deal to others) was when Moore was writing as Arthur.  For his “voice”, she chose to flip back and forth between using an ampersand (&) and the word “and”.  At first, I thought maybe something slipped by copy editing, but when it happened repeatedly and then when she started a sentence with an ampersand (and she even began a paragraph with it), I just about popped.  This is a deliberate style choice that Moore made for this character, but it prevented me from totally immersing myself in Arthur’s story since I had to constantly decode such sentences as “I read it twice. & then I read it three more times.”  *pop*

Another problem was the last part of the book. Although Moore delivers a story that is touching, insightful, and uplifting, I felt that at the end of the book, there was something missing.  If I were to describe it (so as not to spoil the story), it would be like buttoning your shirt and realizing only when you got to the bottom that your shirt was uneven.  You’re going along button to hole, button to hole, button to hole, but despite everything going swimmingly, it doesn’t end up right.  Moore gives us a beautifully written story that seamlessly fits together but the end of the book seems a bit off and I ended up with more questions than answers.

Aside from those issues, I did love how Moore presented Arthur and Kel with such fearless honesty.  Both men are flawed, fractured, and burdened with regret and loneliness, but they are also proud despite their brokenness and willing to open up their hearts regardless of the risk that love often carries with it.  Usually when a book presents two different character threads, I find myself enjoying one more than the other, but with Liz Moore’s Heft, I enjoyed both Arthur and Kel equally and loved laughing and crying with each of them.

Heft is an enjoyable read offering up a message of hope, forgiveness, redemption, and second chances.  It also serves as a reminder to never underestimate the full impact of a seemingly simple act…like making a phone call or asking for help.  As the Dalai Lama once said, “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.”

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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