I have a thing for pilgrimage stories.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise, I suppose, since my personal (and currently neglected) blog is entitled This Pilgrim’s Progress. Knowing that alone, however,might not tip you off to how much I thoroughly rave about the film The Way, or the fact that I’ve listened to the opening story on this episode of This American Life about five times in the last several weeks. So, let me make this completely clear…I am a total geek for pilgrimage stories.
That being said, it should come as no surprise that a book called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry would find its way onto my summer reading list.
The story of Harold Fry starts, as all good pilgrimage stories do, with an inciting event. In this case, the recently retired Fry receives a letter from an old colleague, Queenie Hennesy, explaining that she’s in a hospice care facility and, essentially, goodbye. In haste, Harold pens a response to Queenie and sets out to drop it into the mail. Before he can do so, he stops into a gas station, purposefully delaying the mailing of what he knows to be an inadequate response to Queenie’s letter. There he explains his situation to a complete stranger, “the girl in the garage,” whose response fills Harold with faith, against all odds, that he can make a difference for Queenie Hennesy. Thus, he begins his 627 mile journey across England, believing that as long as he walks, Queenie will live.
Who is Queenie Hennesy and, for that matter, who is Harold Fry? Why does so much distance seem to exist between Harold and his wife, Maureen, and their son, David? The answers to these questions, as unfolded in the background of the novel by author Rachel Joyce, are never what you think. Joyce steers clear of the salacious and spectacular, choosing instead to craft her characters with complexity and care, lest they be cheapened by easy answers. No, these are real people, whose lives full of good experiences and heartache alike have brought them to the present moment. In the present moment we all face a choice – is this just how life is going to be from now until I die, or is transformation still possible?
Although the theme of faith is prevalent throughout this work, Joyce steers clear of a heavy handed message on the theme. She never makes assumptions of the reader or, for that matter, the characters who fill her pages. There are no tearful conversions, only tiny expressions of faith and hope, doubt and despair that so often characterize the finest stories of the saints.
Ultimately, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, runs the full gamut of emotions. I can’t recall a novel that made me feel so joyful and hopeful at one turn and heartbroken and scared in the next. There is so much that I cannot say about this book for fear of ruining the experience. To do so would be equivalent to Harold Fry jumping in a car and driving to see Queenie Hennesy. Some stories and experiences are best left uncovered by putting one foot in front of the other or, in this case, page by page. This is one journey I highly recommend you make for yourself.