Monday, March 4, 2013

My Unlikely Love of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

Harold Fry caught me by surprise. I did not expect to love him, and I certainly didn’t expect the book to break my heart. You know how people say a book made them laugh, made them cry, made them think? The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry did that to me, and I wasn’t prepared for it.

Harold Fry is a recently retired salesman from a brewery. He was forced out once he passed a certain age, and he and his wife Maureen, live a fairly boring life in Knightsbridge, England. They live alone, in relative silence, with Maureen waiting for a visit from their son, David, that never comes. One fairly inconspicuous morning, Harold eats his toast while Maureen vacuums dust that isn’t there. Once the mail comes, Harold is surprised to receive a letter that then changes his life.

Queenie Hennessy, a friend he hasn’t seen in twenty years, has written to tell him she is dying of cancer. Harold is taken aback by this news, and begins to remember the kindness she showed him all those years ago. He quickly writes a letter in reply, puts on his yachting shoes and his waterproof coat, and sets out to mail the letter to Queenie in Berwick-upon-Tweed. After passing many postboxes, but not mailing the letter, Harold decides to continue on his journey and walk all the way across the country to see Queenie, because a letter just isn’t enough. In his mind, Harold believes that if he keeps walking, Queenie will keep living. And thus ensues Harold’s pilgrimage.

Unprepared for a journey of this size, Harold encounters many obstacles, including injury, broken shoes, lack of a phone, bad weather, and unexpected company. He relies heavily upon the kindness of strangers, and shares his story with them. Somewhere along the way, his story goes public and Harold becomes a sensation of sorts, even getting followers. Through the whole trip Harold focuses on getting to Queenie and tries his best to get past anything in his way.

Like so many travelogue books before this, the book is much more about the journey than the destination. Along Harold’s walk, we learn about his past, which features both happy and sad moments. He recalls incidents long forgotten from his childhood, his courtship of Maureen, David’s early days, and his work with Queenie. Harold is a quiet man who has spent his whole life trying to be unobstrusive, and not bother anybody. He has bottled up so much that it all seems to come pouring back into his head when he is walking. There is much more to Harold than there initially seems to be.

The reader is not just in Harold’s head, but Maureen’s as well, and that gives an added perspective to Harold’s impromptu walk, and the life that led up to it. Maureen changes during Harold's walk too, and does some remembering herself.

I highly recommend this book to anyone really. It definitely does not just appeal to people of Harold’s age. I listened to this book on audio, and the narrator did an excellent job of portraying the emotions as well as the “very English” polite distance Harold maintains.

It’s very rare that a book doesn’t remind me in one way or another of another book I’ve read in the past, but I have a hard time here. I have honestly never read a book like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I kind of hope I never do again. It’s one of a kind. 

~Cailey W.

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