Saturday, May 25, 2013

My Vicarious Pilgrimage with Harold Fry

Sometimes someone else's suggestion for a book sits on the sidelines for a while.  (Case in point: I waited several years before I finally got to A Prayer for Owen Meany.  What a delight!)  I usually attend the fall convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, but this past year, I had to miss the even, held in Las Vegas.  Aside from all the great professional resources I gather each year, my favorite session is called "Readers Among Us," during which the session attendees just share book titles we've read for pleasure, not merely for the classroom (although there is, admittedly, sometimes an overlap).  I emailed one of the regular session facilitators, Connie Ruzich, who sent me the list, mentioning almost in an aside that one of her favorites was Rachel Joyce's novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I might not have gotten to it as quickly as I did, but I came across the audiobook at the library. (To be honest, I work through the collection of three local libraries, always looking for something I haven't heard or read yet.)

I hadn't gotten far into the book before I knew it was one I'd suggest to several of my reading friends.  As the story opens, Harold Fry, a 65-year-old retiree, receives a letter from Queenie Hennessey, a woman with whom he worked many years ago, letting him know she is in hospice care with terminal cancer.  Harold struggles with what to write her in response, then walks out to mail the letter--and he just keeps walking. After meeting a young woman in a gas station (to whom he refers as the "garage girl") he decides he is going to walk all the way (500 miles at least) to visit her to save her.  He eventually calls his wife to let her know his plans. 

The back story follows Fry's relationship with his wife (now cool at best) and his estranged relationship with his son David.  As he walks, wearing his yachting shoes the whole way, he meets a variety of interesting characters and recognizes the innate kindness of most humans.  His wife, in his absence, realizes she actually misses him and begins to recognize her own responsibility for the deterioration of their marriage.

I got so caught up in the book and cared so much about the characters that I felt the blisters on poor old Harold's feet.  I also felt such irritation at the self-seeking crowd that joined him on his pilgrimage once he received some unwanted publicity. I was glad, too, that his wife didn't have to end up as the antagonist in the book, but became a sympathetic character herself. 

I loved the quaint travelogue feel of the book, and I grew to love the sweet, flawed man Harold Fry.


1 comment:

Marie Cloutier said...

I really loved this book, as dark and bittersweet as it turned out to be. I agree with you about Harold's wife- I was glad she wasn't a simple shrill harpy but a very complicated and sympathetic person.