SCPL Online NonFiction Book Club discussion

The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
This topic is about The Stranger in the Woods
The Stranger in the Woods > To Catch A Thief

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by SCPL (new) - added it

SCPL (st_catharines_public_library) | 542 comments Mod

I’d like to discuss Knight’s crimes and whether or not you think the punishment fit the crime.

Knight values honesty and, upon capture, readily admitted that he burglarized 40 times a year, which amounts to 1080 times over the course of his 27 years in the woods. All of these crimes are felonies. He never stole from full-time residences, only summer cabins and the Pine Tree Camp. Knight was ashamed to be a thief and claims that he only stole to survive. He regularly stole propane tanks, batteries, and books.

Knight stole yes, but he also had a moral code: “if it looks valuable, the hermit will not steal it” (p. 5). This code can be problematic. Later, we learn that while Knight claims to never steal anything of value, one of the watches that he stole “did have sentimental meaning…it had been a gift to Alex from his grandfather” (p. 15).

What are your thoughts on Knight’s moral code as an explanation for his theft? How do you think Knight felt about stealing?

Some of the people with summer cabins felt violated by his continual break-ins. Tired of the break-ins, they began “hermit-proofing” their cabins by reinforcing windows and doors and installing alarm systems and motion lights. The cabins were meant to be their home away from home, a place to go to relax and unwind. Yet many felt stressed and anxious in their cabins. Some argued that Knight “took people’s peace of mind [and] stole every bit of my piece of heaven” (p. 157). However, others were not upset by Knight’s actions and some even admired him. Harvey Chesley, the facilities director of the Pine Tree Camp, said Knight “was a thief of necessity. He has my respect” (p. 156).

How do you think you would have felt as an owner of one of the summer cabins?

Knight was sentenced to serve 7 months in jail. Once released, he was obligated to seek psychological counselling, call his case manager every day, and appear in court every Monday. These rules were in effect for at least one year and he would be subject to a seven-year term in state prison if he broke any of these rules. Finkel states that Knight upheld every requirement of his sentence and never missed a call or court appearance.

Did the punishment fit the crime? Do you consider Knight to be a criminal?


Heidi Madden | 118 comments Gah this is the hardest part of the book for me. Yes. He’s a criminal. Period. How he can justify that a whole MATTRESS isn’t valuable, or hand held video games, or thousands of dollars in books I’ll never understand. And yes, he violated (great word) the peace of the people who lived in the area. I’m catching up on these discussion questions because I was out of town camping for the last few days. There’s a HUGE amount of trust in camping in campgrounds or having a cabin in the woods. Yes, you can lock your car or cabin or zip up your tent but you have to trust that people won’t just waltz in and take stuff. Even more valuable things like chairs or camp stoves – we left those on the table/around the fire when we went down to the beach and we had to just trust that no one would take them. If you can’t trust that things that are LOCKED IN YOUR CABIN are safe??? That’s a huge violation!
Yes, Knight was a model prisoner and filled his probation but seven months seems excessively light. No, he’s not hurting anyone NOW but I would have liked to see him do something to pay back the people he stole from. Not just their physical goods but something to make amends for 27 years of terrorizing them.

I confess that on some level I was cheering for Knight. He’s not exactly likeable but Finkel does a good job of making him into a pretty good protagonist and I was kind of happy to hear that he didn’t get a harsh sentence, but I’m also frankly a bit outraged on behalf of the people he stole from. Like many of them said, if he had just ASKED it would have been different but stealing? Not cool.

message 3: by SCPL (new) - added it

SCPL (st_catharines_public_library) | 542 comments Mod
Hi Heidi,

Thank you for your feedback!

You make a great point about determining value. How was Knight really to know what was or wasn't valuable? He claims he only stole items such as batteries out of absolute necessity. When it came to entertainment, he would only steal older versions of video games, for example. But that Gameboy may have meant the world to that child. And the books! All those books, whether or not they were new or old, could have been somebody's prized possession.

The mattress is a great example. Unless he found a soiled mattress at the curb, that definitely had some value! Finkel tells us that Knight had fitted sheets and Tommy Hilfiger pillows on his bed as well. Of course his life wasn't luxurious but it wasn't necessarily deprived either.

While reading, I kept putting myself in the position of the cabin owners and I know I would have felt violated. I would feel anxious, nervous, and angry while in the place where I'm supposed to rest and relax. This wouldn't have been something I suffered through for a week or a summer but for 27 years! I would have sold my cabin!

As far as the punishment goes, you make a great point that he should have performed some type of community service for the people who were directly affected by his actions: the summer cabin owners and the Pine Tree Camp.

Knight is definitely a flawed character and I was conflicted about how I felt about him and his decisions. You make a good point about how many of the residents started leaving supplies and notes asking Knight to write down what he needed. Knight worried that this generosity may be a trap and result in him being found out. As a result, he never touched these supplies or wrote anything down. Instead, he continued to break in.

The fact that cabin owners were willing to spend their money to provide supplies to Knight tells me that they were not only generous but wanted the break-ins to stop. I'm sure Knight knew this as well yet he continued to violate the privacy, safety, and security of these people.

Clearly you and I feel the same way about this issue :)


message 4: by SCPL (new) - added it

SCPL (st_catharines_public_library) | 542 comments Mod
Hello all,

I was reading some of the Goodreads discussions between Michael Finkel and other Goodreads members. One person stated that they will not read the book because of the theft.

Finkel provided and detailed response and finished by noting, "Knight is receiving no money from this project. A summer camp for children and adults with mental and physical disabilities (The Pine Tree Camp), from which Knight frequently stole, will instead be receiving donations."

I think that is a very generous decision on Finkel's part. I don't know if Knight was involved at all in making the decision to donate to the Pine Tree Camp but I'm happy someone involved in the project is giving back!


Diana (librariandi) | 23 comments Hello! I am ALMOST finished the book now, and I am delighted to hear that money from this project will be going to the summer camp! Trying to decide how I really felt about Knight was such a difficult part of reading this book. I mean, he is apologetic and repentant, and clearly struggles with some mental health issues but at the same time...that doesn't excuse his criminal behaviour. Just because someone is non-violent doesn't mean their crimes don't have a lasting effect on others. As fascinating as Knight's story is, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be one of the cabin owners and to feel so violated by Knight's intrusions.

message 6: by SCPL (new) - added it

SCPL (st_catharines_public_library) | 542 comments Mod
Hi Diana,

Yes, I agree. For all of my criticisms of Finkel (as discussed in my post "Author Issues") he seems like a good person with the best of intentions.

Knight, on the other hand, is definitely a flawed character, which he readily admits. At the same time, I like that he wasn't this perfect spiritual being who left society in search of peace and harmony with nature. As Finkel quotes at one point, Knight didn't leave society, he lived off the fat of it.

Like you, I don't think there is an excuse for his criminal behaviour. I am so impressed by the cabin owners who were able to forgive Knight so easily. I would have had a far more difficult time overlooking his crimes, especially since they were crimes of choice and not of "necessity".

I think that you, Heidi, and I all agree that Knight's actions against the cabin owners was a violation. I wonder if Knight himself has taken any actions to make amends with the cabin owners and the Pine Tree Camp?

I hope you've enjoyed the book so far!


back to top