Monday, January 07, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry—Spoiler, Beware

I read quite a lot of books in 2012—I would finish one book and then start the next with rarely more than a day's break in between to process one before I started digesting another. I credit (or blame) my Kindle for that because the damned thing is so handy and compact. I got it last January right before a beach vacation and haven't been able to put it down. I used to say that about actual books, just one individual book made of paper that was so compelling "I couldn't put it down," so isn't it interesting that I would now use that phrase about a device that allows me to read many books, one after another?

I got an iPad Mini as a Christmas gift from Husband, which has replaced the Kindle because I can read and check email and check Facebook and play Drawsomething and then read again in quick succession, and let me tell you, this thing, this little iPad—I can't put it down. And I keep reading.

Over Christmas, I finished Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles, a thoroughly enjoyable farce that had me reading the story with visions of a British comedy starring a young Bill Nighy—I'd name an actual younger British actor with the same comedy-bent, but none come to mind, so I give you Bill Nighy to give you the tenor of the plot line.

And almost immediately after I finished reading the Wiles book, I began reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I'll confess, I could put down Care of Wooden Floors now and then even when reading it on my iPad Mini, but after just a few pages of Harold's unlikely story, I was hooked.

Harold is a retired gentleman living in a small village in England. He grates on his wife's nerves, and he sits idly wondering what should be his next step. One morning at breakfast, he receives a letter from an old friend and former co-worker, Queenie, informing him she has cancer and is now in hospice care. She just wanted to connect with him one last time.

Harold quickly writes a reply and tells his wife he'll be back in a few minutes—he's just going down to the mail box. But when Harold reaches the mail box and looks back up the hill at his house where his dissatisfied and dissatisfying wife resides, he decides to walk to the next box, and then the next and so on.

Harold comes across a garage where he meets a girl. He tells the girl about the letter and reply, and the girl tells him about her aunt who was dying of cancer, but the girl had so much faith the woman would live that she did. All Harold needed was faith, the girl said, although she isn't clear what this faith should be in. Harold, an atheist, isn't looking for spiritual guidance anyway, but he devises a plan for this faith just the same. He determines that if he were to walk all the way to Queenie, a trip of about 600 miles, she would continue to live. He calls the hospice center and passes on the word to Queenie—I'll keep walking, and she'll keep living, he tells the nurse—and he calls his wife with the same message. The wife is not amused.

Here is the trailer for the book, but don't be fooled by the whimsical nature of this production. The book itself is not so whimsical:

As the story unfolds, as do Harold's memories revealing the life he has led thus far, we learn why such a pilgrimage would be unlikely for such a man. Harold has not been extraordinary throughout his years, and he is now embarking on an extraordinary trip with just the clothes on his back and a pair of shoes not meant for 600 miles of walking. As his wife points out to him, he doesn't even have his phone.

I say that Harold isn't extraordinary, but I only mean that in an outward sense, in the sense in which we judge each other—looking at his family and career and interests, he's nothing much to speak of. But the interior Harold apart from the exterior is quite something. This strikes me—as Harold walks the length of England, he meets up with people who tell him their stories, and with each one, he makes room for them in his heart, he says. He holds their stories as if they were tangible, and he takes on their burdens. What he doesn't mention is that by taking on these burdens, he's likely lessening the weight of them for the people he meets, a fete that is quite extraordinary, I think.

Well, here's the SPOILER, so don't read further if you don't want to know what happens.

Harold eventually reaches his destination, and Queenie has managed to keep living despite predictions of impending death. Her caregivers attribute Harold's promise to her, that he would keep walking for her sake. But when Harold finally sees Queenie after being apart for 20 years, he is startled to find her in such bad shape. Her heart has kept beating, and her lungs have kept taking in oxygen, but all Harold has done is postpone the relief of death. The author doesn't say this—it's all about Harold and his wife and the people he meets—but here lies Queenie so riddled with cancer that she has had essential parts removed—her tongue and portions of her spine, for example—and she is so near death that death would have been a relief when she sent the letter.

Harold was so unhappy in his life and wanted so badly to do something remarkable that he created this journey with no regard for the consequences, what it might do to his wife or what it might do to Queenie should he be successful. He was focused only on putting one foot in front of the other and in making restitution. Harold had done a great wrong to Queenie years ago, and he wanted to make up for it, but it took him almost three months to reach her, and all the while he was walking, she lay speechless and nearly motionless with no hope of recovery. I wonder, if Harold wanted to do something good for his old friend, maybe releasing her immediately might have been better. And the garage girl with the hopeful story of keeping her aunt alive through faith? It turns out to have been a lie, a story she told herself so she might miss her aunt a little less.

SPOILER ENDED. When I first began reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, I could not put it down, and days later, even after beginning the next book on my list, I am still processing the details of it. I feel as if I know Harold, the real Harold that has nothing to do with his outward signs of life, and he is a remarkable man. Knowing him, I believe such a pilgrimage really is likely, but he did no one any favors by making the trip. He may have been working through a life's worth of issues, and his wife as well, but I wonder if there might have been another way to go about that, a way that wouldn't have meant three more months of misery and pain for his old friend.


savannah said...

i read the spoiler alert even though i had decided to read the book. somehow, i knew that would be result for harold: what he did was for himself, not queenie. was it selfish? don't know, but, this is a concept i've been dealing with for a while. reason, motivation and consequences. thank you, sugar. xoxoxo

Scout said...

Motivation is a big subject in this story, and I'm not sure if Harold was being selfish, although I do think the author could have addressed the idea that Queenie would have been better served had her life not been extended. It wasn't for her sake but for his.

dive said...

Wow! Great review, Robyn.
You really need to get writing again; I so miss reading you. Whenever the self-doubt monster comes calling, read a bit of Maryann and kick the monster in the butt.
As a writer, you're the real deal. Now get typing!