Book about hermit engages local communities

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

Staff Writer
Published: 5/15/2019 6:00:24 PM

Local librarians finally have an answer to a question they asked themselves in early March: “What happens when people in 10 small towns read the same book at the same time?”

According to some local librarians, they become engaged and develop relationships with each other. They talk to each other — respectfully agreeing and disagreeing on what they think of the book and its protagonist. They listen.

Throughout March and April, individual libraries held book discussions, took hikes, held movie nights and offered many events, some with other libraries, to compliment their reading. Participants read “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,” a biography by Michael Finkel about Christopher Knight, a man who lived in the Maine woods by himself for 27 years.

“It was amazing,” said Ivan Ussach, a librarian at the Warwick Free Public Library. “Everyone who participated was a team player, creative, loved bouncing ideas off each other.”

The program, called Libraries in the Woods, was a great opportunity to collaborate with other small libraries throughout Franklin County, Ussach said.

“We all got to know each other better,” he said. “We got to share ideas. We got a lot of good feedback.”

Finkel, the book’s author who interviewed Knight after he came out of the woods, wrote that Knight admitted to breaking into people’s homes in the area he was living in the woods and stealing what he needed to survive.

The New York Times compared Knight to Boo Radley, the recluse in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Knight, who was born in 1965, lived without human contact, except for two extremely brief encounters, from 1986 to 2013 in the North Pond area of the Belgrade Lakes in Maine. He was considered a hermit and burglar.

Knight lived — within a mile of summer cabins and campsites — in a crude camp he built for himself within a cluster of glacial boulders. He entered the woods with almost no possessions, so he lived off of what he stole from the nearby cabins and camps. It is believed he committed about 1,000 burglaries (about 40 per year) to survive, especially during the harsh winters. The book drew a varied reaction from local readers.

“Some people hated the protagonist, said he was just a thief,” Ussach said. “Some had empathy for him, thought he was mentally ill.”

Katherine Hand, director of Sunderland Public Library, said she was happy with the choice of the book.

“It was an interesting story that inspired conversations on many levels,” Hand said. “Some of the themes were solitude, survival, mental health and roles we all play in society. We got to talk about all of them.”

Hand said Sunderland held book discussions, presented a lecture on solitude and silence by Barry Dietz, and co-sponsored a silent walk up Mount Sugarloaf with Tilton Library in South Deerfield.

“We had a diverse group that participated,” she said. “They had all sorts of reactions. It was a bit of a polarizing book, which is what made it so interesting.”

Hand said most people expressed that they loved the book, while a few were incensed by the protagonist’s actions.

“Most were offended by his thievery,” she said.

Matt Atwood, a programming librarian at Dickinson Memorial Library in Northfield, said more than a dozen readers showed up to the library’s two book discussions. He said other programs the library offered included Sam Ducharme talking about walking the Appalachian Trail and Sally Naser talking about wildlife. There was also an event where Will Broussard from Mount Washington Observatory talked about the “world’s worst weather” on the summit of the mountain in New Hampshire.

Other libraries offered everything from “Getting to Know Our Woods” to “K-9 Trackers” to a photo show, “Capturing Maine Landscapes with Drone Photography.” And, though the program has ended, because of rainy weather throughout the spring, Warwick Free Public Library still plans to hold a hike to Indian Caves in Warwick to celebrate the book.

“We all definitely had lots of good discussions and events,” Atwood said.

One of the discussions was held at the local winery, Cameron’s, where he said he was surprised to hear how much anger there was toward the hermit.

“It was very successful,” he said.

While Atwood said planning an annual read could become overwhelming, he’d love to see it happen again at some point.

Ussach said it’s nice to be part of a book club, and it was nice to plan with other libraries and librarians.

“It all came together well,” he said.

David Quinn Jr., one of the owners of Kidder Funeral Home and Kidder & Co. Home Decorating, both in Northfield, read the book but said he couldn’t find the time to attend any of the events, though he said he would have loved to.

“The book was completely different than I had expected,” he said. “The poor guy turned into a criminal. I was just flabbergasted that he lived that way for so long.”

Quinn said the book was an easy read — he read it in two nights.

“It was fascinating,” Quinn said. “I think it was a terrific program, the libraries all getting together like that and holding different events. I hope I’m not as busy next time.”

Quinn said the home decorating store had a book box, where the library put copies of the books to make it easier for people to get their hands on them.

“They put five books to start, and they were gone within hours,” Quinn said. “Then, they came back with more, and people just kept taking them. I was pleasantly surprised.”

Besides Warwick, Dickinson, Sunderland and Tilton, M.N. Spear in Shutesbury, Wendell Free Library, New Salem Public Library, Erving Public Library, Leverett Public Library and Pelham Public Library participated. Looking ahead, Ussach said he hopes more libraries will get together next year to read another book together.

Anita Fritz is senior reporter at the Greenfield Recorder. She began working there in 2002. She can be reached at or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.


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