Book Club Pick: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Queenie is dying in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Harold is walking five hundred miles from Southern England to keep her alive. The idea came to him over a burger at a garage where the girl attendant shared her story of an aunt with cancer whom she helped by having faith in her healing and vowed that we have to” believe in what we don’t know.” A light dawns in Harold’s darkness.

Now he is walking for Queenie. And for his own salvation.

He is walking in yachting shoes, with no cell phone, no maps, but a world of heart. And hurt.

He and Queenie were work colleagues. One night, in an anguished moment, Harold committed a destructive act and Queenie took the blame. She was fired and disappeared from the scene. Now after many years he receives a letter from her telling him of her approaching demise. He immediately pens a sparse letter of response and sets out to mail it to her. But instead of slipping it into the finality of the postal slot, he decides to deliver it in person.

What follows is an account of his pilgrimage. In the holiness of the birds, trees, flowers, barns, evening “squares of buttered light from windows, he finds internal solace and begins to remove the fragments of his life from his mind. With initial hesitant caution and then increasing openness he examines each momentous turn of events involving his childhood, marriage, child, job and selfhood. He discovers the people he meets surprisingly have their own burdens, but they share joyously in his quest to save Queenie.

Month after month the journey wavers and surges as Harold puts one foot in front of the other through exaltation and deep sorrow. In his painful reverie, he begins to revisit his relationship with his left-behind spouse, Maureen, and their troubled son, David, and how his death poisoned the thinning marriage and shut out the light - the ripples of his suicide flowed out into the darkest corners of their blaming. But there is counterbalancing joy! The kindness of strangers provides him with plasters for his blistered feet and hope for his soul, buffering his sorrow. Like a magnet he attracts bizarre fellow-travelers with their own agendas, the media, the disillusioned in search of truth, and yes, even a dog accompanies him for awhile.

Meanwhile back at home, Maureen with the help of a grieving neighbor slowly is also able to pull back the curtains of her life – literally- and remember a time when she and Harold laughed and loved.

But all pilgrimages must come to an end and the triangle lives of Maureen, Harold and Queenie culminate on the banks of Berwick-on Tweed in a baptism of tears.

As Hemingway once said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are stronger at the broken places.” That is our prayer for Harold and Maureen. And for ourselves.

-Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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