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

Fresh out of college as a 22 year-old, I packed 45 pounds of my belongings, including clothing, books, and camping gear into my backpack with guitar-in-hand and boarded a plane for Maine. Apparently, I thought living out of a backpack (and then a car) and laboring in the backwoods of Maine in mid-July when the black flies were thick and most brutal, was a brilliant idea. I mean, I was armed with my zeal for life, my college degree, and my personal copies of The Maine Woods, On The Road, Howl, and A Coney Island of the Mind.  I was going “suck the marrow out of life”, as Thoreau mused.

Cute idea, Erin. Really adorable.

Two weeks into my backwoods adventure I called my parents and whined (cried, actually) into the payphone that I wanted to come home. Every muscle in my body ached from doing manual labor. I was sleeping in a tent for weeks on end,  hanging pulley systems high into the treetops, quarrying rocks out of the earth and drilling them into moveable sized stone steps, and then effectively building staircases and hiking trails all over the state of Maine. But I was like a moose caught in the headlights and it took me some time to adjust to my new life.”You’re not coming home,” my dad informed me.  “You’ll wish you had stuck it out if you give up now. Give it two more weeks, and if you’re still adamant about leaving, you can come home.”

Seven months later I (again) cried into the payphone while talking with my parents, and this time it was because I didn’t want to come home. The woods changed me, and to this day, I still have dreams that I’m trying to find my way back to Maine. I’m so thrilled my dad wouldn’t allow me to just throw in the towel.

So, you might understand why I would cackle uncontrollably to hear Mark Bramall, narrating in the thickly-accented voice of Christopher Knight, describe Henry David Thoreau–one of my inspirations for joining the Maine Conservation Corps–as a “dilettante.” Yeah, so basically the one and only Henry David Thoreau, famous Transcendentalist who wrote Walden and The Maine Woods is, according to Christopher Knight, is a mere amateur. A dabbler. And if that proclamation isn’t an indication of how hardcore of a hermit Knight is, then you require a level of convincing beyond what I can provide.

A.K.A.: dude is savage. And his story is controversial. You’ll have to read it to decide if you’d consider him laudable or loathe-able. You might think it relatively easy to flat-out condemn a guy who dropped out of society and lived off of the refuse of other working people for nearly three decades. And you wouldn’t be hasty, either. I mean, he was charged for over 1,000 break-ins. Even author Finkel says he did not aim to portray Knight as some kind of hero.

Here is what Finkel says of Knight in one of his entries on Goodreads:

“He confessed to 1,000 break-ins, one of the most extensive burglary cases in U.S. history. He tormented people. But — he also never physically harmed anyone, never carried a weapon, never stole anything of great monetary value, never shattered a window or kicked down a door. He had a wildly unusual idea for how to live, and he lived in a way radically different from any other human you will ever encounter, and he has an awesome and daunting brain — he is, I feel certain, a genius — and he has insights into modern society and solitude and the meaning of life that you will find nowhere else. “Take the good with the bad,” Knight told me, when speaking of how he should be portrayed in my book, and I did. I firmly believe that in the good are some incredible insights, and in the bad is a fascinating true-crime tale. And please note — Knight is receiving no money from this project.”

Not only is Knight’s story of solitude fascinating (in that he claimed to have spoken only one word in the nearly 30 years he was alone in the woods), but the journalism and storytelling is particularly noteworthy.You will learn the details surrounding Christopher Knight’s arrest and makeshift scavenger camp, his love for Lynyrd Skynyrd, his interest in Rush Limbaugh and Dostoevsky, how he didn’t completely freeze to death during 27 brutal Main winters, and his insight that one year in jail was more damaging to his psyche than 27 years alone in the woods. Also, this book will intrigue and perplex you and leave you with much to contemplate, perhaps in solitude. Oh, and you’ll learn the storied history of hermits, including the bizarre and curious traditions of “ornamental hermits“, who were hired by rich people to hang out, not bathe, and subsequently create a “rustic” ambiance thereby increasing property and estate values.

Oh, and for the record, moneybags, I’ll gladly perch on your lands like a woodland sprite sans deodorant and makeup if the price is right, even at the cost of confirming your suspicions that I’m just some huge hippie masquerading as friendly neighborhood librarian  #Noshame.

 

 

 

The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve

Have you ever looked at the cover of a book and knew that the story was going to hook you? That’s how I felt when I saw The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve. Swirling fire, a deep red cover, and a bold font all signaled to me that the content of this book was going to leave me wanting more. Shreve exceeded my expectations with this novel.

The Stars are Fire is a piece of historical domestic fiction that focuses around the Great Maine Fire of 1947. This real event is given a fictionalized twist as Shreve tells the story of Grace Holland’s attempts to survive and rebuild after her life falls into ruins around her. After a summer-long drought, fires began near Bar Harbor and started ravaging the coast of Maine. People were left wondering where to escape to and hoping that the closeness of the sea would spare them from the brunt of the fire.

Grace Holland lives with her husband Gene and their two small toddlers. Five months pregnant, Grace is left to protect her children on her own after Gene leaves her to go help fight the fires. Grace and her best friend, Rosie, race to the sea with their four children to try to survive the flames. Keeping their children alive is their only priority as Grace and Rosie watch in abject horror as their houses and the community that they have grown to love bursts into flames. Hunkered down in the sand by the ocean, Grace fights to keep her children alive, sacrificing her own body to do so.

In the morning, Grace finds herself and her children wonderfully alive, but their lives have irrevocably changed. They’re penniless, homeless, and without a father or husband. Gene never returned from fighting the fires and no one knows where he is. Facing an uncertain future, Grace is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers until she either finds Gene or her mother or gets a job to support herself. Grace has to make a new life for herself and her children, something that both frightens and excites her since her life with Gene was not the most loving or supportive. While she has suffered great losses, Grace is able to move forward, find new happiness, and discover all the things she was missing when she was living with Gene. Just when she is settled into a new normal, something out of the blue happens and Grace is forced to be braver than she ever was before.

I really enjoyed this book. It was the first Anita Shreve book that I read and the first book in a really long time that had me wishing it would have been longer. There were so many characters whose backstories I was yearning to know more of and the ending had me on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen. This book is set up so well that Shreve could easily spin it into a series. Here’s to hoping she does!


This is also available in the following formats:

Enchanted August

Enchanted AugustI was well into Enchanted August  before the (admittedly obvious) similarities to Enchanted April impinged upon my consciousness. In both,  several people who’d not be friends in normal circumstances find themselves sharing a vacation home in an idyllic vacation spot. They become better versions of themselves, more generous, open-hearted and kind. Marriages are improved, and friendships fostered.

Brenda Bowen’s novel is modeled on The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnin. Published in 1922, it was made into a film in 1992, starring Miranda Richardson and Michael Kitchen.

In Bowen’s novel, Lottie and Rose happen upon an advertisement for a  cottage (in fact, a huge, Victorian house) on Little Lost Island in Maine. They are both at low points in their lives, stressed out about their children, husbands and life in New York City. Like Enchanted April, the desire and the plan take root during a pouring rain. All the better to contrast with the buoyantly sunny skies of Maine and Italy. Caroline Dester (a movie star in Enchanted August and Lady Caroline in Enchanted April) are struggling with the demands of fame and privilege.

The four occupants (the joyously optimistic Lottie, the quieter poet Rose,  beautiful Caroline and eccentric, grieving Beverly) meld into a family of sorts, even as it expands and embraces extended family members.  Maine itself is a character – ever-changing but always exhilarating, working its magic on all who spend time there. The very remoteness of the island (no cell phone service) changes how they go about their days and how they interact with each other and those off the island. There is a charmingly retro vibe to the story and the setting.

If you can’t physically get away this summer, dip into this virtual vacation between two covers, and you’ll feel as refreshed and restored as if you’d actually left your house.

 

The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron

This is not the type of book I would typically choose.  Turns out, I couldn’t put it down.

When I go on vacation, I often look for books that take place in the same locale.  Since I was heading out on a vacation to Maine, this one fit the bill.  Granted,  it had also received several excellent reviews, so I wasn’t just going by the title or the picture on the cover, though I’ve  selected books that way a time or too, as well.  Popular authors such as Nelson DeMillie, Tess Gerritsen, John Lescroart and C.J. Box were all singing the praises of this debut novelist, whose day job just happens to be editing Down East: The Magazine of Maine.  Plus, the book also landed on Booklist’s best crime novels of 2010 list.

The Poacher’s Son opens with Mike Bowditch, a game warden in Maine, receiving an alarming message on his answering machine from his estranged father, Jack, whom he hasn’t seen in two years.  The next day, Mike discovers that his father is the prime suspect in the murders of a beloved cop and a lumber executive.  Though Mike knows his alcoholic father makes his living poaching illegal game, he cannot bring himself to believe that the man is capable of murder.

What distinguishes this book from more plot-based suspense thrillers is the realistic no-one-is-perfect characterizations.  Also, the author seems to have a natural knack for pulling the reader into the setting, be it the rocky coasts or the forested wilderness that makes up much of Maine.

No, I won’t tell you the ending.  But I will recommend that you read this book and that you keep a lookout for the series of other Mike Bowditch mysteries to come.