Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce
 Random House  2012
343 pages     Fiction

About five years ago, a 65-year-old acquaintance of mine announced that he was going to walk home to Kalamazoo from Sneedville, Tennessee, where he had been on a mission trip. He proposed that he would write daily journal entries which he would email to friends, and then he would write a book when he got home. What he didn't anticipate was that his feet would become raw and bloody, and he would become so exhausted about two weeks into the 300+ mile journey that when someone offered  him a ride and dropped him off at home, he accepted the offer. It was a pilgrimage quite similar to that of Harold Fry. Unlike Harold, my friend's feet got the best of him. 

I thought often of my friend as I was reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold is the product of a loveless home and is in a loveless marriage. Newly retired, he doesn't know what to do with himself. His wife, bereft because their son has abandoned them, cleans the house incessantly. Life has become meaningless to both of them. When Harold receives a letter from a former co-worker Queenie announcing that she is dying of cancer, it is the culmination of all the ills in his life. He tries to mail her a letter but he can't bring himself to do it. He passes three post boxes until he finds himself at the edge of town. He begins to walk toward Queenie, in shirt, tie, and yacht shoes, and he doesn't stop. He calls the hospice where Queenie is spending her last days--600 miles from where he lives--and tells the nurse to tell Queenie not to die until he gets there. "I will keep walking, and she will just keep living." 

His walk, then, becomes a pilgrimage. He is on a journey to save, not just Queenie, but himself. It is the most audacious thing he has done in his life. As he journeys, he mulls over the choices he made in his life: the timidity with which he parented his son; the wedge that came between his wife and him; the fear that heralded his days and nights. He finds strength and joy in the mundane of "putting one foot in front of another," and in the final culminating moments of the book, the courage to make amends and find purpose for the rest of his life. In the end, Maureen, his wife, joins him as he visits Queenie, who has indeed stayed alive long enough for him to arrive. Maureen says, "You dear man. You got up, and you did something. And if trying to find a way when you don't even know you can get there isn't a small miracle; then I don't know what is."

In reading the reviews of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I discovered a new word--twee. I had to look it up; it means something overly cute, delicate, small or corny. The reviewers in the New York Times and the Washington Post both used this word, but they used it to say that in describing the book, it sounds "twee," but in fact, the book is anything but twee. The Washington Post reviewer says that instead, the book is "steely, even inspiring, the kind of quirky book you want to shepherd into just the right hands." That may be why I liked it so much. It made me incredibly sad, because at this point in my life, I understand Harold's need to be and to do something profound. It also made me sad because it is so easy for long-term marriages to fall into the kind of monotony that assails Harold and Maureen. 

The Blog Critic reviewer mentions that Rachel Joyce is a screenwriter,
and she has an eye for character--a cast of characters who are all too realistic next to Harold’s quasi-spiritual pilgrimage. "While everyone else wants to sanctify him we begin to see him in a new light—a light which shows his human failings while only making him more endearing to the reader." The reviewer also reminds us that this is a quest novel in the tradition of the Odyssey or Huckleberry Finn, or Marilynn Robinson's Gilead, which I read a couple of years ago.

Most of us are on a pilgrimage to be true to ourselves and to the source of our hope. That was what my friend was trying to do when he journeyed home from a mission. That is what I do as I tell my grandchildren stories of my childhood, stories of my family. That is what we do when we "put one foot in front of the other" and keep moving through life as joyfully as we possibly can.

Rachel Joyce:s website:

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