The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A walk in the woulds

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<i>The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry</i> by Rachel Joyce

Do a Google News search for “faith,” then sit back and click through the first 10 stories. A warning, though—skip the mid-afternoon, Internet-browsing snack. You won’t want to eat for this.

The first item might be a look back at the Sikh temple shooting, in which a white supremacist killed six Wisconsin residents inside their place of worship. The second could be a piece on Monsignor Lynn’s appeal—he’s the highest-ranking Catholic to go to prison for covering up sex abuse in his archdiocese. And then there’s the circus of faith-slinging in the presidential race. Just what kind of Mormon is Mitt Romney? Does President Obama have an authentic faith? How has Rick Santorum become such a paragon of Christianity, and how come so many people dig it?

No. You definitely don’t want to eat during that.

Our media lampoons faith as often as we tiptoe around it. (Think editorials titled something like, “No Really, It’s Okay for Mitt to be Mormon.”) We associate faith with suicide bombs, snake-handlers, judgy people. To call it taboo would be to grossly underestimate the violence with which many readers regard faith.

It’s a hot potato—a topic that manages to be inflammatory, yet boring—and time doesn’t seem to help. As the hate crimes pile up, people find religions they little understand even less comprehensible, and our vocabulary for broaching the subject further deteriorates. (See the New York Times article by David Bornstein.) My point? Faith is tired. It’s a subject much maligned, methodically avoided, warily discussed, raged about, summarily dismissed and generally uncool.

Enter Harold Fry.

Here he comes, up a grassy hill, in his tie and yachting shoes. He’s an elderly gentleman, tall but stooped. His collar has seen crisper days. His trousers show mud stains, but that’s no excuse for discourtesy. Harold Fry is on a pilgrimage—a faith-based journey, a mission from God, some might say. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the religious association, though his Britishness would prevent him from giving voice to any such a controversial opinion.

The title character of Rachel Joyce’s first novel, Harold epitomizes the shrinking senior. He’s spent the last six months sitting at the kitchen table, drinking tea, mowing the lawn, adding a few inches to his waistline. Long before retirement, his relationships began to fail. Harold longs to reconnect—though he doesn’t know it yet—to Maureen, his wife of 45 years, whom he once boldly loved. Now, she sleeps in the spare bedroom. She occupies herself with the scouring of every surface in the house. “I think not,” goes her standard response to anything that comes out of Harold’s mouth. (In Rene Descartes’ house, she would have disappeared.)

The two have mostly kept to themselves over the years. They keep up a reluctant rapport with neighbors, and with a child from whom Harold remains all but estranged. Mum and Pop used to take David to a resort for two weeks each summer, but the beach never proved hip enough for their sardonic, Cambridge-bound son. They used to nurse a garden full of vegetables, too. But Maureen doesn’t cook anymore. The days when he might expect her help or her encouragement, or whatever it was he still wanted, were long since gone.

Harold doesn’t feel unhappy, per se. He doesn’t want for anything. In fact, he hasn’t wanted anything in a long time. Obla-di, obla-da, life goes on.

Then the post arrives on a Tuesday morning, bringing an envelope in “Turkish Delight pink.” It’s a note from Queenie Hennessy, a former coworker who once did Harold a great kindness (we learn this kindness at the end of the book). The letter comes from a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed, a little town at the northernmost part of England. Ms. Hennessy writes to say goodbye.

What follows? Harold strolls to the mailbox … then walks on to the next mailbox … and the next. Before he knows it, Harold has made it halfway across town, contemplating his own existence, things he would have done, could have done, should have done.

He meets an unlikely mentor, a greasy-haired, teenage gas station clerk. She tells him that her faith gave a dying aunt the will to live.

Faith? Wasn’t that the word she had used? Not one he usually heard, but it was strange. Even though he wasn’t sure what she meant by faith, or what there was left that he believed in, the word rang in his head with an insistence that bewildered him. At 65 he had begun to anticipate difficulties. A stiffening of the joints; a dull ringing in his ears; eyes that watered with the slightest change in the wind; a dart of chest pain that presaged something more ominous. But what was this sudden surge of feeling that made his body shake with sheer energy? He turned in the direction of the A381, and promised again that at the next postbox he would stop.

As you’ll guess, Harold doesn’t stop. He begins at Kingsbridge (nearly the furthest point away from Berwick you could be on the English island), and he eventually travels more than 600 miles on foot. He relays a telephone message to Queenie via a nurse: “Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.”

Lovely, yes? But the reader’s attention grows footsore in the monotony of walking, walking-related injuries, sleeping, waking, walking some more. That’s the whole book. Seriously. Tie your laces and prepare for 320 pages of walking, blisters, fitful dreams. Repeat.

Even so, the author’s descriptions of the country Harold discovers during his journey, the tenderness with which he recalls memories, the honesty of the language—it all somehow works to invest the reader in every step Harold takes.

A good enough hiker no longer feels the blisters. A good enough reader must make it through a certain number of pages reading about blisters to feel the magnitude of that accomplishment. So just when you think you’ve had enough of Harold’s pus-filled sores, Joyce moves him along.

On his journey, Harold memorizes the plant dictionary. He starts, for the first time in years (maybe ever), to notice the richness of the world around him. With each stone he turns over in real life, we get the sense that he’s also cleaning house emotionally. He dredges up painful memories, and he finds that he can bear them if he simply keeps putting one foot in front of the other.

He knew he was going to reach Berwick. …The simplicity of it was joyful. If he kept going forward, he would of course arrive.

Pleasant though it may be, page by page, the story will struggle to hold the attention of a more restless reader. The author also tends to show and then tell. But some of the unneeded explanation feels excusable in light of the spirit of the story. How do any of us discover things? Bit by bit, experience by experience. Even when we might know an answer deep down, we sometimes need to say it aloud to achieve the “Eureka!” moment.

In the chatter about the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, we heard relatively little about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It’s since been cut, with the release of the short list, probably because it was one of the more sentimental novels in the running. I’d like to suggest, though, that Harold offers something more than a sappy, man-coming-to-terms-with-his-past moral.

As Harold moves from the shoulder of one highway to another, he braves periods of crippling doubt.

He almost quits a dozen times. In every case, something right happens. He meets a stranger who says the right thing. He receives a burst of long-awaited support from his wife. Or he simply musters the fortitude somewhere inside himself.

Faith can too often be seen as a religious imperative, a black-and-white concept (you either have it or you don’t). Here’s a book that comes at faith with a curious eye—an innocence that feels incongruous with its wizened subjects. Does a person need to have faith in something? From where does it come? How do you keep it?

Harold would be a beautifully written, if forgettable, story, but for a clutch moment at the end. Harold arrives at the hospice, realizes his goal of seeing Queenie. Then, faltering, he sits on a bench next to the sea. He wonders if the pilgrimage meant anything at all.

Harold proves to us again what we’ve been learning through the course of his story. Faith isn’t a fixed, unblinking belief. It’s a process. It’s taking the initiative to get up and go. It’s traveling down the road with your eyes open. It’s blisters and enlightenment, memory and stumbling.

Most of all, it’s getting back up again.

Mary Kate Varnau is a writer and editor who lives in Raleigh. She thinks you should buy this book and read it while walking outside.