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September 21, 2012

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”

by Anne Paddock

The story of a pilgrimage whether it be a hike up the Pacific Coast Trail as depicted in Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild,”  a bike ride through Spain (It’s Not About the Tapas by Polly Evans) or the infamous 500 mile walk from southern France to western Spain called the Camino de Santiago can be inspiring. These types of adventures are usually triggered by a crisis or life changing event (the Camino de Santiago is often called The European Divorcee Trail) and center around a person committing to a physically challenging adventure to find meaning, closure, or simply time to think.  When I hear of a pilgrimage, the desire for personal enlightenment and a better understanding of self comes to mind and this is the overriding theme  in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a story of a man’s pilgrimage to beat fate and make up for the wrongs of the past. Written by Rachel Joyce, the recently released fictional novel takes place in England. Harold Fry is a 65-year old pensioner who has been married to his wife Maureen for 45 years, the last twenty years of which have been unhappy for both partners.  One day, Harold receives a letter from a former co-worker, Queenie Hennessey telling him that she has terminal cancer and thanking him for his friendship. Believing he was not a good friend when he should have been, Harold decides to walk the 627 miles to the Hospice where his friend lays dying hoping his walk will inspire her to fight off death and wait for him.

As expected, the story of Harold Fry unfolds on the walk as does the story of his wife, Maureen and their son, David. Time spent alone on the road invites personal  introspection and this is what Harold focuses on. His whole life has been spent staying in the shadows, trying not to be noticed, avoiding confrontations, and taking the road of least resistance. And, although the solo walk of an elderly man is by description all of these things, it is also the opposite: walking on the open roads, trying to be noticed by a passing car, hoping for the kindness of strangers, meeting people and listening to their stories, and committing to a hard journey by foot.

Throughout the book, the reader wonders whether Harold will make it, what is to become of Maureen, what happened between Harold and Queenie, will Queenie die before Harold makes it to her bedside, will Harold die, and what happened to Harold and Maureen’s son, David?  All these questions are answered in good time as the story unfolds. Speaking through Maureen, the author writes “if we can’t be open…..if we can’t accept what we don’t know, there really is no hope.

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