11 January 2018

Michael Finkel: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (2017)

This is an almost unbelievable story, although true. Christopher Smart, aged twenty, decided one day in 1986 to live in the woods in the North Pond area of Maine. And he stayed there for twenty-seven years until his discovery in 2013. His family were quite reclusive and never registered his disappearance to the police. He lived by burgling the summer residences nearby for food and other essentials. He made about 1000 such raids, before he was discovered. He didn't look like anyone might expect a hermit to look: he bathed with a sponge in cold water, buried his food packings, shaved and cut his hair. In winter he had great problems coping with sub-zero temperatures.

Slowly, Michael Finkel managed to communicate with him, first writing, then meeting him in prison and collecting information on Smart's startling activities. However, he spends pages talking about autism, Asperger's syndrome, schizoid behaviour, and people's ability to survive such situations without human contact.

But Smart also stole books and read a great deal: reading, after all, is communication, as Smart himself observed but Finkel doesn't pick up on the fact that an author is actually talking to a reader.  Smart's comment that Henry David Thoreau was a dilettante is quite perceptive, and although he may not be a literary expert – his comment on Joyce's Ulysses being highly overrated by pseudo-intellectuals is more than a little gauche – it is obvious that he has a keen intelligence.

That's the problem with this book, which at two hundred pages is read in a couple of hours with no struggle at all, there are no great insights: very simple words and apparently designed for young adults, or people who just don't read very much. When Finkel starts talking about Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy I was dumbfound. Christopher Smart is indeed an intelligent person, and he deserves far better than Michael Finkel to write about him.

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