The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
by Rachel Joyce
Doubleday Canada $29.95
Here is a wonderful story that will snag you from the first page. It won the prestigious Booker Prize, so others besides myself think it’s great.
Harold Fry is one of those tall, stooped self-effacing type of guys who gives you the impression that he can’t fight and he can’t run. He has very good reasons for being this way, but you have to read the book to find out about that.
He has married and fathered a child, now an adult, but his marriage has become an unhappy affair of separate bedrooms and stilted conversation. Maureen, his wife, now puts all her energies into keeping the house spotless and blaming Harold for everything.
The post arrives and Harold receives a hot pink envelope, not a common occurrence in the home of Harold Frye. It’s a letter from Queenie Hennessy, a friend from many years ago, but it’s a sad letter because Queenie Hennessy is dying in Berwick on Tweed, and wishes to say goodbye. Harold hurries to write an appropriate letter, walks to the box to post it and then has second thoughts. A note is such a cold thing, and Queenie had been very good to Harold in those days long ago when they worked for the same nasty man. He had to do something more.
Harold decides he must go and see Queenie and take his good wishes to her. She says, in her note, that she is dying, but Harold phones her and leaves a message. The message says, “Hold on, I’m on my way to see you, I’m walking, you must not die until I’ve come.”
He doesn’t go home and acquire the proper rig as anyone else might do, he begins his walk to Queenie. The problem is that Harold is starting out from Kingsbridge (south and west of Plymouth) in the extreme south of England; Berwick upon Tweed, is south and west of Edinburgh. They are a whole country apart, but Harold begins his pilgrimage.
Queenie and Harold were not sweethearts, but good friends. Neither of them made friends easily, so they remember each other with fondness. Harold loved his wife and son very much, though he had a hard time showing it. The quest to Queenie’s side is something else altogether.
Sore feet, disintegrating shoes, blisters and rain are just the beginning. The press gets hold of the story and others join him. Harold meets many people on the way, many are intrigued and most help when they can.
Meanwhile at home, Maureen finds that she misses Harold. Her hurts and hates directed at him are examined more fairly. Both Harold, on his foot-slogging journey, and Maureen at home are doing a lot of thinking.
There are surprises at the end of the story. The difficulty of facing Queenie, and the acceptance of past sins and the possibility of new beginnings.
It’s an original and charming story.
Peggy Freeman is a local freelance writer.