Books: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Of the half-dozen or so books I’ve read with the library book club since I joined earlier this year, the book we read for October has been my favorite so far. If I had been deciding whether or not to read it based on a brief description, I might have been pretty dubious. After all, what sort of a story outline is this?

Harold Fry–retired sales rep, beleaguered husband, passive observer of his own life–decides one morning to walk 600 miles across England to save an old friend.

But that’s the idea of a book club. You read books that you might not have otherwise, and talk about them with people you might not have even met otherwise. At least that’s the appeal for me.

I started reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry with no particular idea if I would like it, but I was engrossed within a page or two. I read nearly half the book before realizing that if I kept up at that rate, I’d finish the book so many weeks before the next book club meeting (we skipped September due to our normal meeting night falling on the holiday) that I might not remember it clearly by the time we met.

I will admit that it does get a bit slow somewhere in the middle. By then we have a good idea what sort of person Harold is, what sort of family life he has had, and what it’s like to see life at a walking pace instead of hurrying through. There are fewer interesting stories about the people he meets than there were earlier in the book, and his self-doubts are seeming rather repetitive.

But like Harold, once you’ve started on this journey you don’t want to give up on it. You don’t know what you’ll find at the end; you realize it probably won’t be what you imagined but it’s worth getting there.

It’s hard to think of a way to talk about the book that does it justice. It’s the reading that makes it worthwhile, not any particular incident or idea included along the way. It’s not what happens at the end that makes the story, it’s the journey itself.

As I thought about Harold going out for a walk and deciding to keep going, I couldn’t help remember times that I almost wished I could do that. During a period when life seemed particularly difficult, there were days when I just had to get away from the house and family. Walking has always been sort of therapeutic for me.

But I was somewhat alarmed to find myself wishing, as I walked briskly away, that I could just keep on going. Not that I wanted to leave my family, or ever seriously considered it. There was no place I wanted to go away to. It was just that I felt trapped in circumstances that I didn’t know how to improve.

Harold learns a lot on his walk, not so much facts as a new way of seeing things. I remember reading, quite a number of years ago, that that is the real purpose of a pilgrimage, more than the destination itself. The journey itself, taking one away from familiar places and activities, facilitates a change in perspective. And the longer the journey (in time, not necessarily distance), the greater the opportunity for that to happen.

Fortunately, one doesn’t have to walk 600 miles for that to take place. The idea is to keep from having one’s awareness of things dulled by always doing and seeing and thinking the same things. We try to protect ourselves from hurts, and in the process miss both the lessons we might have learned and the beauty we might have seen if we were looking.

Just changing our daily routine in small ways can help. Taking a different route, talking to different people, trying different activities, or just taking time and silence to pay closer attention to the things inside ourselves that we try to ignore.

Harold’s walk is painful in some ways. To begin with, there is significant physical pain, as his body reacts to unaccustomed activity and inadequate footwear. Even as he improves physically, he struggles with a lot of self-doubt.

Not only Harold but also his wife, who is forced by his unexpected absence to reflect on the years of their life together, must face painful memories. There is no easy fix to the pain caused by their own words and actions or the words and actions of others. But in remembering and reflecting, they find the opportunity to move forward rather than remaining trapped in their unhappiness.

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