Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Unlikely Pilgrimage
From The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

Open quote 
Harold felt winded. If he moved so much as a limb, a muscle, he was afraid it would trigger an abundance of feeling he was doing his best to contain. Why had he left twenty years pass without trying to find Queenie Hennessy?"

After the jump, my review.

Grade: A-

Harold Fry is a gentle man, recently-retired, in a dead marriage. One day, all that changes when he receives a letter out of the blue, out of the past, from the other side of England. He walks to the post office to mail a letter in return, and, impulsively, keeps walking, 600 miles across England.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a gentle book that starts quietly, builds slowly, and, ultimately, makes a lasting impression on readers. Harold Fry is an unlikely pilgrim. He's a less likely hero. Still, he knows that his pilgrimage is the most important thing he's ever done. Well before Harold reaches his destination, the reader is likely to think so, too. After he reaches his destination, the reader is sure of it. It turns out it's not the journey across England that's important, but the journey into Harold's past, into his relationship with his wife and son (and Queenie Hennessy), into his own character. Rachel Joyce does a masterful job of slowly but surely drawing the reader into this character study of a tragic figure.

I can't help being reminded of other pilgrim stories, from the classics by Chaucer and Bunyan, to more recent examples from my reading list, like "The Places in Between" by Rory Stewart, a non-fiction account of a man's walk across Afghanistan; "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac, an automobile trip across 1950s America where the urge to travel reflects irresponsible youth, not mid-life crisis; "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, where a future apocalypse forces a man and his son on a much grimmer pilgrimage; even "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, a kind of disaster at sea pilgrimage. There's something about being on the road, at sea, on the move, about travel, about experiencing new places and things, that has always drawn me, all the way back to childhood. I remember a teacher reading "The Boxcar Children" to my class, with passages like this:
After breakfast everything was packed up again and put in the canoes. Very soon they were on their way down the lake. The day was beautiful. They paddled around the first look and saw a moose swimming to shore as fast as he could. Around the next look they saw a beautiful deer standing in the bushes. "I like to go around these looks," cried Benny. "I'm glad we came."
Like Benny, I've always been eager to see what was around the next look. And after going with Harold Fry on his pilgrimage across England, I can also say, like Benny, I'm glad I came.

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