I am a big fan of books where people walk. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods about hiking the Appalachian Trail. Almost every Anita Brookner novel there is. Leonard Bast in Howard’s End. I’m sure there are others as well. I once walked 10 miles home from work just because I felt like it. From Old Town Alexandria, Virginia to our apartment in Adams Morgan in DC. My hands got puffy and I got caught in a lightening storm and tropical downpour, but it was nice to say that I had done it. I’m not necessarily a walking fanatic, but I do like the healthful, emotionally restorative benefits that walking long distances offers.
And then came Harold Fry.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I could’ve really hated this book. Instead I really, I mean really, loved it. Newly retired Harold Fry gets a letter from Queenie, a former co-worker he hasn’t seen in 20 years that she has inoperable cancer and is living in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed in the very north of England. Harold is touched by the letter but doesn’t quite know now to answer it. He feels that his reply is less than adequate and hesitates to put it in the first mailbox he comes to. He walks on until he finds another one but keeps walking past that one as well. Then he is inspired by the words of a clerk at a gas station and decides to go see Queenie. But he decides to walk. From Kingsbridge in the very south of England. And he doesn’t even go home to get proper walking shoes or his mobile phone, or any other thing that could make his 452-mile trek a little more plausible.
This was the first point I thought I might put the book down. My literal, logical mind would not accept this approach. But happily, I kept going. When his walk turns into a media circus I also got a bit annoyed, but only a little. And by that time I liked Harold so much I didn’t want to leave him. As he goes on his journey Harold meets all kinds of people and we learn bit by bit what his back story is with Queenie and with his wife Maureen.
The thing I so liked about this book was that most of the characters seem to transform for the reader. They don’t necessarily transform in their own lives, but how the reader views them is transformed. The young woman working in the garage–I thought I had her pegged as being an awful, uncaring Catherine Tate character, yet she ends up being the catalyst for the whole story. And then there are those that do transform and shift their way of thinking. And there is Harold’s patience and ability to see the good where others can’t. And there is the fact that there are so many people who are nice to him along the way. I literally walked around with a smile on my face because of this book. It also had me crying at my desk one day at lunch.
So many ways it could have gone wrong. Instead, a total joy to read. Not great art, but such a lovely book.