The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012)

“The pewter sea lay behind, while ahead of him was all the land that led to Berwick, where once again there would be the sea. He had started; and in doing so Harold already could see the end.”

“On he went, one foot in front of the other. Now that he had accepted the slowness of himself, he took pleasure in the distance he covered. Far ahead the horizon was no more than a blue brushstroke, pale as water, and unbroken…the land and sky had become matching halves on the same thing.”

harold-fry-map

Map of Harold Fry’s pilgrimage across England.

My dear friend Sophia has been recommending this novel to me for years and I have been extraordinarily slow in getting around to reading it, something I am very, very sorry about given what an enjoyable book it turned out to be! What finally had me tracking down a copy to read was when two more women whose opinions I value — both members of my Book Lovers Club (Tricia and Michelle, I am looking at you) — mentioned Harold Fry at our most recent meeting. Thank you to all three of you.

At the start of the story, we meet Harold Fry, a man who we almost immediately recognize as lonely and unhappy. Upon receiving a letter from a long ago friend — informing him that she is dying — he is shaken awake for the first time in a long, long while. Soon our main character is leaving home under-dressed, under-prepared, with no maps or plans, setting out to walk five hundred miles to see his friend before her death. Harold is filled with doubt but every single time he is set to turn back, he receives a sign that he should continue on and, against all odds, he does.  “[The people he had met] believed in him. They had looked at him, and listened to what he said, and they had made a decision in their hearts and minds to ignore the evidence and to imagine something bigger and something infinitely more beautiful than the obvious. Remembering his own doubts, Harold was humbled.”

This story is gentle, slow, a bit tentative and shy like the titular character, but filled with wonderful moment after wonderful moment. Harold, a man who began his journey apologizing for his very presence in the world, walks and while he walks, he quietly discards his fears and uncertainties and finds a new man underneath. “He had started something and he didn’t know what it was, but now that he was doing it, he wasn’t ready to finish.”

Soon, Harold’s narrow life expands exponentially and he welcomes change and complications as he becomes more and more certain that this journey was meant to be. As all of these new experiences happen, Harold is not only reminded of things he has never seen, but also of things he has seen but long forgotten.

Along the way, Harold begins to lighten his load: he gives up possessions to others who need them, he refused offers of better gear, he even mails home all of his money and begins to sleep outdoors and forage for his meals. What he gains is the knowledge that being alone means he must confront his past and relive its most difficult moments; there can be no hiding from the horrors he so long ago suppressed. Out walking, there is nowhere for him to hide from his memories. Harold finds his good but long-forgotten experiences from his past begin re-emerge along with the bad. “In walking he freed the past that he had spent twenty years seeking to avoid, and now it chattered and played through his head with a wild energy that was its own. He no longer saw distance in terms of miles. He measured it with his remembering.”

Harold also gains widespread notoriety and along with that a band of fellow pilgrims who greatly confuse and complicate his journey, but he welcomes them and accepts they each need to walk for their own personal reasons. He sees that everyone he meets — those who help him and who he helps — all are part of the larger story of his walk and he finds solace in that. Soon he is on his own once again and finds his courage and will tested over and over, but he does not stop making his way toward Berwick and his long lost friend.

At times glorious, at others heartbreaking, and always gorgeously written and crafted to keep us enjoying the journey while still longing for its completion. A wonderful , thought-provoking novel and well worth the read.

On a parting note, I feel I must also add that my husband and I have always dreamed of hiking across the UK. We spend an extraordinary amount of time hiking, it is one of our favorite things to do together (alone and with our children). In fact, for our honeymoon more than fifteen years ago we spent more than two months driving across the United States camping and hiking and it was heavenly. Therefore I was not only deeply moved by Harold’s journey — both physical and spiritual — but also deeply envious of the beautiful countryside he was lucky enough to journey through. “Life was so very different when you walked through it. The land rolled up and down, carved into checkered fields and lined with ridges of hedging and trees. He had to stop to look. There were so many shades of green Harold was humbled. How was it that [from the car] Harold had never noticed all of this before?… “Maybe you saw more of than the land when you got out of the car and used your feet.”

kingsbridge

Images of Kingsbridge, UK were Harold began his journey …

Berwick 3

…and of Berwick-Upon-Tweed where he finished.

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