Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

If you read just one book this year, make it The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce! I don't know when a book has moved me this intensely. It was a journey well worth taking. To make it even more "meta" (as my blogging friend Amy said), I listened to Harold Fry's walking journey while walking on the treadmill several miles. I didn't cover nearly the distance he did, but I went everywhere he went emotionally and metaphorically.

Harold Fry opens his mail one morning to find a letter from Queenie Hennesey, saying that she is in hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed and has been told there is nothing more they can do. Queenie had been a favored co-worker of his at the brewery twenty years ago, but left under mysterious conditions in a way that saved Harold from something and yet, he had never once attempted to locate her in all this time. When he sets down the words "I'm sorry," and walks to the post box to mail the brief letter, he is struck by how inadequate the gesture is. He decides he will walk on to the next box and the next and eventually stops in a garage where a young girl tells him that faith is what is so desperately necessary when it comes to cancer. Harold suddenly calls the hospice to say that he is walking to Berwick-upon-Tweed (in upper England, while he is in the lowest part of England, a distance of over 500 miles) and to please tell Queenie to keep living as long as he is walking.

What follows is a pilgrimage full of time for reflecting on his life and the many mistakes he has made over the years. With nothing but time and open skies, he recalls his failings as a husband and father. Indeed, sadly Harold reminded me quite a bit of my husband's father as he discussed his discomfort with fatherhood and how he never embraced his son or talked to him in meaningful ways. Harold's upbringing helps to explain his difficulties, but he is still open to fully confronting his past regrets.

In the meantime, we are also introduced to his wife and watch as she tries to make sense of his pilgrimage and her role in both the past and present circumstances, in the growing chasm between them. She begins to realize that she misses Harold and resents him leaving her. She is unsure what to make of his determination to reach Queenie. Both of them grow and change as the miles and memories stretch on.

I was struck by the importance of the fact that Harold takes nothing special along for the journey. He leaves in a tattered pair of boating shoes, without a cell phone or any gear. He tries to remain as unencumbered for the journey as possible. We embrace the journey of life with only the resources God has given us (personality traits, skills and abilities) and must do the best we can with what we have. Often the journey seems without purpose, or too hard to continue, or even somewhat ridiculous (like the idea of walking possibly holding off the inevitable end of life) but hope keeps us trodding along.

I relished the opportunity to rush to the computer after every mention of a location and find it on MapQuest UK. I wanted to visualize the path he took, the roads he travelled. I was swept along by the story and fully entered into the characters' emotions and reactions. As the story came to a close, I wept.

The tale was even more significant when I discovered, upon googling Rachel Joyce, that she wrote this book while her own father was battling cancer. In a video on her website, she explains how the writing of the book felt like a journey of her own, one she often questioned her abilities to complete. She herself hoped her father would continue to live while she wrote. Sadly, he never lived to see the success of his daughter's first novel.

If my recommendation doesn't move you, take a moment to read Amy's review (which induced me to find the book). Or view the many wonderful reviews written on Amazon. Take my word for it, this is a book you will not regret investing your time and energy on. You, too, will cheer Harold Fry on and think of ways to buoy up your own spirits and resolve for whatever journey life is presenting you.


Amy Sorensen said...

Yeah! I'm so glad you loved it. I cried at the end, too. It made me think so much about my dad, even though none of it really connected to my dad. Except I just kept seeing the image of him walking down a tree-lined rural road in his black socks and church shoes.

Or maybe because he didn't see his daughter become a successful writer? He wanted that so much for me!

Wendy said...

That's the thing about a really good book - it can stir connections from many different sources. For me, some of the sadness I was feeling at the close of the book related to my son's loss of his car. It strikes whatever sadness you are experiencing and magnifies it through the story.

I think the author must feel that same sadness of her father not living to see her become a resoundingly successful writer.

Wendy said...
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