Harold is the Englishman who writes a letter, heads out to post it, and then decides instead to walk the 500 miles to deliver it in person in Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. In a moving unravelling of emotions – regrets, forgiveness, guilt, understanding, love – Joyce delivers a subtle but powerful story of one man’s search for redemption that made the long list for the Man Booker Prize.
When Harold Fry receives a farewell letter from a dying co-worker whom he hasn’t seen in twenty years, his intention to mail her a get-well note is sidelined by a young waitress he meets on his way to the mailbox. With faith that his friend will stay alive until he reaches her at the hospice, Harold begins his journey in his trainers (sneakers), with only his debit card in his pocket and leaving behind his cell phone. At first, Harold’s walking seems a selfless tribute to his old friend, but his task is ill-conceived as his shoes fall apart and his feet blister. As he meets assorted characters along the way, he reminisces about his wife, his son, and his job, and clearly, his journey is more personal than a kindness to a dying woman.
Slowly, Joyce reveals the real reason behind Harold’s pilgrimage through conversations with characters he meets along the way – a swath of humanity that is both giving and taking, generous and ruthless. At one point, the image of Forrest Gump jogging across the country, with mindless followers straggling behind him, came to mind; Harold Fry has a following for a while as well in his fifteen minutes of fame. Like Calvin Trillin’s character Tepper, Harold also provokes confidences from the people who meet him by chance, and like the children’s book character from Harold and the Purple Crayon, Harold Fry seems to be drawing his reality as he goes. They all congeal into a sad, older man who is looking back on his life – hoping it’s not too late to make it better.
Maureen, the wife left behind, has the expected initial reaction when Harold calls her from a phone booth to tell her of his adventure, but her emotions and her life changes as Harold continues to walk. She moves from trying to have a doctor declare her husband insane, to missing him and wanting him home again – regretting the years of coldness and miscommunication.
Joyce cleverly conceals the real reason for the estrangement, and its revelation shifts the story’s theme. The clues are so subtle, I found myself rereading sentences – sure that I had missed something, but the surprise motive does not appear until the book has almost ended.
Joyce conveniently provides a map of England with Harold Fry’s trail, and you will want to flip to it as he marks the way from the southern tip, up through Cornwall, the Cotswolds, across Hadrian’s Wall, to the northern most tip at his destination. The descriptions of the countryside and the towns will have you feeling like one of his followers. His renewal through the beauty he encounters is energizing.
The lessons learned are thoughtful, and thankfully the ending is a satisfying one. But don’t be fooled by the flirty title – this is not a humorous travelogue. The story moves quickly from its main character’s whimsical decision to walk, into a serious observation of human behavior.