Today the paperback version of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry hit’s bookstores and our friends at Amazon. It is one of the most unexpectedly genuine books I have read in years. Rachel Joyce has written a book that will please many different types of readers.
Harold is a retired beer salesman. His retirement is not exactly what one dreams about. His wife is not happy, she is negative and blames Harold for all of the undefined wrongness in her life. One morning as Harold is buttering his breakfast toast his wife, bringing in the mail, passes him an unexpected letter. Harold learns that a former co-worker, a woman who served as an accountant at the brewery, that he has not seen for twenty years, is dying of cancer. Harold feels a strong emotion at this and quickly dashes off a letter to his friend. As he walks to the mailbox, thinking about his life and the quiet misery he lives in, Harold walks right by. Before long he has gone past several and made a decision that will change his life and the lives of more people than he can imagine.
Harold has decided to walk to visit Queenie. The fact that he is wearing boat shoes, did not bring his mobile phone, and, most importantly, that Queenie lives 500 miles to the North do not change his decision. Soon Harold is off on a trip across the British Isles.
Harold’s journey begins as a solitary reflection. We read about Harold’s life and with Harold revisit his memories of a time when life held so much promise. When his wife looked at him with love, as if he were seven feet tall. A time when his son and he had a relationship unlike now when, though his wife still talks to his son, Harold has not seen him in years.
The people Harold meets on his trip are a varied lot. One thing soon becomes apparent to him however, he is giving people an opportunity to consider their own lives. Often when they seek him out he finds himself serving as a sounding board, one that does not judge but only attempts to understand and reassure.
Harold learns that we are all broken in some way, In a stunning passage that I will quote heavily below we see all the people Harold meets. Though he is himself not a man of faith, he wishes he could but he has never been able to believe, he begins to serve an almost religious purpose to these strangers who he meets. In a long passage we read that:
” Harold passed office workers, dog walkers, shoppers, children going to school, mothers and buggies, and hikers like himself, as well as several tourist parties. He met a tax inspector who was a Druid and had not worn a pair of shoes in ten years. He talked with a young woman on the trail of her real father, a priest who confessed to tweeting during mass, as well as several people in training for a marathon, and an Italian man with a singing parrot. He spent an afternoon with a white witch from Glastonbury, a homeless man who had drunk away his house, as well as four bikers looking for the M5, and a mother of six who confided she had no idea life could be so solitary. Harold walked with the strangers and listened. He judged no one, although as the days wore on, and time and places began to melt, he couldn’t remember if the tax inspector had no shoes or had a parrot on his shoulder. It no longer mattered. He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too.The world was filled with people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without a knowledge and a truth that everyone was the same, and also unique, and that his was the dilemma of being human.”
This introverted retiree in Great Britain becomes, in his way, a symbol for the times. A man trying to reconcile what his life should have been and what it became with what it is right now. A man like all of us who has experienced joy and disappointment though not perhaps in the quantities he would have liked. As Harold stumbles and picks himself up, as he provides solace to others while doubting his own abilities, he is a person we can both admire and feel sorry for. That, in itself, makes him a character of rareness.
This became for me the book of the moment. I cared about Harold. I even cared about his shrewish wife, who, once we learned of her inner trials and tribulations, becomes a character to understand and sympathize with.. In the end perhaps that is the lesson of the book. No one is all anything, not good or bad. Easy characterizations are just that. They are not often truthful ones.
With The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry the author has written a book of fiction with the rare ability to make one care, to make one think, and to mostly wish these people truly existed. The truth is they do. We all know a Harold Fry.