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Book Club Kits: The Stranger in the Woods : the extraordinary story of the last true hermit

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Book Summary

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.

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the significance of the Socrates epigraph that opens The Stranger in the Woods. How does this set the tone for the book? How does it relate to the book’s larger discussion of needs versus wants? 

2. In the early pages of the book, Finkel states that Knight has “stripped the world to his essentials.” Consider the lifestyle that Knight leads in North Pond. What are his essentials? How many of these essentials are material versus immaterial? What does he value the most?

3. On page 5, Finkel states that Knight has a “moral code” that he lives by, which determines what he will and will not steal. How would you describe his moral code? How does his moral code relate to larger ideas about capitalism and materialism in the United States?

4. In the first few chapters of the book, Knight is referred to solely as “the hermit,” before his name and identity are revealed to the reader. Why do you think Finkel chose to employ this narrative device? Explore the significance of the lore around Knight as “the hermit,” and how the mythos of “the hermit” is complicated once his identity is made publicly known.

5. How would you describe the locals’ attitudes toward the hermit over time? Discuss the varied experiences of those who were victimized by his crimes and how these incidents affected their perceptions of their hometown, their domicile, and their safety. After his arrest, how does the narrative of the hermit change, if at all?

6. How do you feel about Knight? On the North Pond camp owners’ scale of “Lock Knight up forever” to “Let him go immediately,” where do you reside?

7. In chapter six, Finkel describes the fanfare surrounding Knight’s arrest, pronounced “a circus” by some local officials. Consider the irony of Knight’s fame in relation to his desire for solitude. How does Knight play into the public’s idea of what a hermit “should” be? 

8. In chapter seven, the narrative lens of The Stranger in the Woods shifts to allow for the author’s point of view to emerge. What spurs Finkel to reach out to Knight, initially? Discuss their early exchanges, as well as Finkel’s first visit. How does their relationship evolve? 

9. Early in their relationship, Finkel reveals to Knight that he is a “flawed journalist,” based on past actions during his reportage. Why does he choose to do this? Discuss the “lofty ideals” that both men strive for in their lives. How are they both committed to seeking truth?

10. Discuss Knight’s time in jail. How does the movement from complete solitude to imprisonment affect his morale? What tactics from his time in the woods does he use to pass the time?  

11. Throughout The Stranger in the Woods, Knight is defined by many labels: He is a hermit, a thief, a prisoner, a purist, a son, a brother. Which of these labels does he associate himself with, if any? How much of a person’s identity is shaped by socialization, and how much is self-determined?

12. On page 50, Finkel states that Knight “seemed to say exactly what he was thinking, raw and true, unfiltered by the safety net of social niceties.” Discuss this statement. How does Knight’s time in the woods affect his understanding of human interactions? What is his general standpoint toward humanity? How does his exposure to media (books, radio) keep him connected to society at large? 

13. When reading Notes from the Underground, Knight felt that Dostoyevsky was reaching through time and speaking directly to him. What books have made you feel that way?

14. Discuss Knight’s childhood and family. How does the idea of rugged individualism and self-reliance color his upbringing? The value of privacy? Consider his absence in the lives of his family members, and his sudden return to them. Does he feel any guilt about his decision to disappear? How does his family interpret his return? 

15. On page 78, Finkel notes that Knight’s decision to retreat to the woods “had elements of a suicide, except he didn’t kill himself.” Unpack this statement. Considering Knight’s promise to go back into the woods at the end of the book, how does he view death in relation to the natural world? 

16. Consider Finkel’s discussion of various hermits or secluded individuals in societies around the world. What does Knight share with these other historical examples of hermits? Is there a mutual moral commitment that underpins their solitude?  How much of Knight’s decision to isolate himself seems to come from a place of idealism versus personal preference? How does his existence in Little North defy the typical categorization of what a hermit is? 

17. Discuss the discipline inherent to Knight’s existence in the woods. How is his life reliant on patterns and consistency? How does he use fear as motivation?

18. On page 112, Knight wonders if “modern society, with its flood of information and tempest of noise, was only making us dumber.” Reflect on this statement. What are the pitfalls of technology in relation to modern living? How does our reliance on technology undercut some of the most essential human functions? 

19. Stranger in the Woods asks complicated, fundamental questions about solitude, self-reliance, and humans’ relationship with nature, with an extraordinary, singularly unique human at the center. Consider your own life as it relates to these concepts. How often are you completely alone? Do you ever seek out solitude, particularly in nature? How is nature both restorative and challenging for the human spirit? By the end of the book, how did your feelings toward Knight evolve? 


About Author am one of those fortunate people who has known what he’s wanted to do all his life. In a journal I kept at age 10, I noted that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. (My second choice was “mad scientist.”) I wrote for both my high school and college newspapers, and when I graduated college, in 1990, I took a job with Skiing Magazine.

In the line of reportorial duty, I skied all over the world, including in Iran, China, Bolivia, and on the glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro. I also wrote about odd sports for Sports Illustrated and traveled widely for National Geographic Adventure — crossing the Sahara Desert with migrant workers; documenting the impact of animal poachers in the Central African Republic; attempting, with my sister, to climb Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world.

While traveling in Haiti, I witnessed the desperate measures people took to escape the difficult economic circumstances there. Some built tiny boats of scrap wood and recycled nails, and attempted to sail across hundreds of miles of open water to try and start a new life in America.

I was given an assignment by The New York Times Magazine to document one of these voyages, and along with photographer Chris Anderson and 44 Haitian migrants, we sailed off. The trip nearly ended in disaster — we were rescued at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard, luckily, just as we were about to run aground on a coral reef.

Then, working for The New York Times Magazine, I covered conflicts in Israel and Afghanistan, investigated the international black market for human organs, looked into a strange murder in Kentucky, and spent time getting to know a former Taliban soldier.

During a New York Times assignment about allegations of child slavery on the cocoa plantations of west Africa — cocoa is the chief ingredient in chocolate — I found that the young workers on the plantations were extremely shy, and when writing the article, I combined several boys’ quotes together to create a composite character. Such fictionalization is against the rules of journalism, and when the story was published an aid agency questioned my reporting, and after I confessed my actions to my editors at the Times, I was fired.

Then came a twist so bizarre and unexpected that it practically defies belief, yet is completely true. On the same day that my firing from The New York Times was made public, I learned that a man named Christian Longo, who was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list, accused of the horrific murders of his wife and three young children, had just been arrested in Mexico.

While on the run, Longo had briefly taken on a new identity, which was not a surprising action for a most wanted fugitive. Except that the identity he took on was mine. He told many of the people he met that his name was Michael Finkel, and that he was a writer for The New York Times.

I wrote a letter to Longo, who was being held in jail in Oregon, where the murders took place, and this initiated a bizarre and disturbing two-year correspondence, during which we exchanged more than 1,000 pages of handwritten letters while Longo tried to convince me of his innocence. I became obsessed with discovering the truth of the crimes, and this obsession resulted in a book, True Story.

The book was later optioned by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, and adapted into a 2015 motion picture, also called True Story, starring James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Felicity Jones.

Later, I began working for National Geographic Magazine, spending time with field scientists on a volcano in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in caves filled with ancient artifacts in Nepal, and in the malaria-ravaged regions of Zambia.

Other National Geographic assignments took me to one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in Tanzania; to an astonishingly rugged group of people living high in the mountains of Afghanistan; and to seek mushrooms in Tibet that can be worth more than gold.

I never specialized in one topic in my writing career — I just wrote stories that grabbed my interest, no matter the subject. I interviewed a man who spent 40 years running from the law. I spoke at length with three young boys who were horrifically lost at sea. I wrote about an eccentric genius who believes that a few medical breakthroughs will allow humans to defeat death. And I watched, amazed, as man named Daniel Kish, who is completely blind, demonstrated to me that he’d taught himself how to navigate the world using echolocation, like a bat.

I married a brilliant biostatistician and we had three children, in quick succession, and suddenly my home in Montana was filled, day and night, with noise. I found myself desperate to find some peace and quiet, and even travelled to India to attempt to meditate silently for 10 days, a mission that did not go well.

Then one morning in 2013 I read about a man who had fled the world at age 20, lived alone in a tent in central Maine, and apparently spent 10,000 consecutive days completely silent. Instantly curious, I wrote a letter to this man, named Christopher Knight, and he proceeded to share with me the most incredible and moving and confounding story I’d ever heard. Knight’s tale is the basis of my new book, The Stranger in the Woods.