Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I don't often read books in the year their published, but The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry caught my fancy and so I got in the library queue and got to read it earlier this month.

The premise is straightforward--Harold Fry is a sixty-five year old man going on ninety, living in a loveless marriage, watching the clock tick away his remaining time on earth, and feeling dull and inert.  He gets a letter from an old friend, Queenie, who is dying and with whom he has fallen out of touch.  He writes a letter in response and then when he goes to mail it, finds that simply mailing it is somehow inadequate. The act of walking to the mailbox has jumpstarted his memory banks and it's almost as if mailing the letter will rebury what the initial letter unearthed.  In a way, Harold's inability to stop walking is a survival instinct.  If he stops, he will go back to being buried alive.

Harold ends up walking from his home in Cornwall to Berwick-on-Tweed, just below the Scottish border on the North Sea.  And his walk does become a pilgrimage, during which he examines his life and attempts to understand and attone for his transgressions. 

I really loved the way the author, Rachel Joyce, used Harold's rambling thoughts as he walked to reveal his story and that of his wife and estranged son.  I was surprised to find that the straightforward story became a mystery--what was Queenie to him and what did Harold's wife blame him for.

I love being surprised by books, but not manipulated.  I felt that Joyce deftly and believably uncovered Harold's story in a way that made him sympathetic, human, and endearing. 

On a personal note, this story and the way it was told reinforces a growing belief of mine that walking, like typing, is a catalyst that fires up the creative process.  I sit down to write and I don't know what I'm going to say until the act of typing enables thought.  I find that this also works when I walk, and it is entirely believeable to me that Harold doesn't even know his own story until he walks it out.  I also liked how Harold's sacrifice--his walking himself almost to death--ultimately worked to change the ending of his story from one of sadness and despair to resurrection.

A powerful story on many layers, and well worth the journey.


  1. I agree! Just finished this book a couple of weeks ago and will eventually gather my thoughts into some sort of post, but I loved it.

  2. Insightful commentary!

    I have heard really good things about this book from several sources.

    I totally agree with you about walking. It does not just spark creativity, it is a fountainhead of all sorts of personal benefits.