Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn’t heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie–who is 600 miles away–because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die. So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories–flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband. Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband’s sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?
“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 made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing it for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is about what it means to be human. Love, loss and regret. Faith, hope and sacrifice. The book forces you to reflect on your own life and the painful commonalities that all humans share. It is impossible not to question your own life and all the times you’ve walked away when you should have done something and always wondered whether it was too late. At the end of the journey you learn that is is too late for some things, but not all things. You can’t save everyone and do everything, and dwelling on the past will get you nowhere. Instead you must focus on the future and what can still be done. I constantly regret the decisions I make and instead of learning from the past and making tomorrow better, I always wish I could change it. So this book really hit home.
Harold is a simple man and it is because of that that he is so easy to relate to. It could easily be any of us in Harold shoes walking to finally do something, walking to get away from home and the pain, walking because it might just make a difference in the life of someone else. And his walk is beautiful on so many levels. Both Harold and his wife Maureen come to terms with the past and slowly rekindle the dying flames of their relationship. As the distance between them grows they both go through periods of self evaluation and reflection that could not have happened any other way. Harold influences the lives of the people who meet who, in turn, give him pieces of their lives to carry with him. He learns that no one is perfect and that though we are all unique, we all experience the same emotions and struggles. It is also a personal journey as well. One of commitment and pushing the limits of the body and mind. Harold must push through blisters and scrapes but also depression and despair.
The way the story is written is also fantastic. It slowly unfolds, little by little, allowing the reader to experience things with Harold. It is only at the very end that the truth is revealed and the true meaning of the story is uncovered. You learn about Harold and Maureen through their thoughts and actions, not through descriptions of their character. Each page draws you in deeper and deeper until you feel as if you are part of the story. When it ends, you feel as if you have made a sort of journey yourself and will be left with a smile on your face. I almost need to read it again in order to experience the novel to its fullest. It’s likely I will one day when I am older and can connect to the story in a different way.