Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgramage of Harold Fry

Book: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Author:Rachel Joyce
Edition: Read on Overdrive
Read: April 2013
684 pages
Rated: 4 out of 5

Harold Fry gets a letter and sets out on a walk-across England. During his walk, he meets a cast of characters, which makes him realize what he has back at home and what mistakes he has made along the way. At the end, he understands himself and his place better. He no longer is concerned about losing what he has, but embraces what he has.


Why do modern writers, even when they have a good story, feel the compulsion to degrade their story with language which is more suited to the gutter? In this story, there is nothing added because of it.

From the start, Joyce writes about things which are lost: making your wife laugh, the replacement of consideration with nagging, the loss of friendship and the loss of one's son. But Fry as he goes on his 600 mile walk gains understanding and insight into himself and others. He gains a strength of character which overcomes many of his doubts about himself.

There is also a sense of delusion.but part of the skill which Joyce has is her ability to not let you know where the delusion is coming from. Is Fry deluded in thinking he can save Quenee by walking? Is Maureen deluded in thinking that talking to her son will solve her problems? By the way, why don't we ever see their son in the book-you find out why later in the book.

Not knowing what to say to a dying women-a common problem. Maybe Joyce has hit --upon something, it is action which will cause a sense of empathy.  Even to his wife, Fry does not know what to say to express himself. But as we find out, it is own clumsiness with worlds which causes people to be attracted to him.

Irony-I will be back soon in chapter one. Did Fry know he was going for a long walk?

 Joyce says that as a boy, Fry instinctivily distrusted the world he did not know. (chp 2) You had the impression this was both  a sense of geography and relationships.

Joyce seems to be saying that with faith you can do anything (chp 2). But faith in what? She really does not say. She does not even say that faith  has to have an object. In this sense, it is rather ill-defined. It sounds more like platitudes than wisdom. Such as believing you can make a difference. While true, this has at least some substance. You hae to go out and walk this belief, so to speak.

In chapter two, he talked about the things in life which he had let go. It was not the large things, but the small-smiles, offers of beer, not making contact with people, neighbors. This is a book where Harold Fry trys to make a difference after realizing he has lost those small things. 

When Harold retires, one of his co-workers says that he heard that Harold has a story(39), but he does not know what it is. This just reminds me that each of us does have a story and we need to understand first, what our story is. But then also what someone else's story is. How our stories get interwoven together.

Every great adventure has a sense of doubt. Not so much in if something is achievable, but in the doubt that we are up to the adventure. For us humans, it is the sense of our own inadequencies. For Fry, it is he has never walked, the voices of doubt from his wife, the looks of strangers.

Fry becomes a minimalist. He gives away what he does not need for now. He becomes free that way. Is this a true expression? Can you continue like that for more than a relatively short time? Can this be applied to all? I think that there is too much dependence on others for such a thing to be large. It is delusional--which Fry never advocates--to think that everybody should what Fry is doing. But there is a certain amount of benefit to doing short-term minimalistic trips. Such as after going backpacking for an extended length of time, I realize that I can do without a large amount of stuff in my life.

For the most part, Harold Fry does his journey alone, and he likes it that way. Along the way, he will meet people, talk with them. But for the most part, they are temporary relationships. But at one point he unwittingly acquires fame. At this point he starts to aquire an almost circus like following. Fry does not like this, but is too meek to turn anybody away. He does not think of himself as a leader of a movement, but as an individual which others happen to latch onto. One particular needy person, Wilf, latches onto Fry. Wilf reminds Fry of his son, complete with the needs his son had. Fry realizes that as he could not save Wilf, he could not save his own son.

One of the joys of Joyce's writing is she has many interesting phrases:
  • beating out wasted time (the man with keys on the counter)
  • faces appeared fixed as if joy had been squeezed away (office workers)
  • Old people should retire and sit at home (thought which Fry had on the first morning)
  • He had started, and in doing so Harold could see the end. (As Fry was leaving the first morning.)
  • How fast and angry the cars seemed when you were not in one of them. (Second morning walk)
  • We all have a past (barman on second day)
  • He was one of those who did not need anybody else to hold a conversation (the walking man)
  • He hoped they were not one of those couples who voiced in public what they could not voice at home.  (About walking man and his wife)
  • In the city, where everything was short-sighted (upon enter Exeter)
  • In the city, Harold's thoughts had stopped...(upon leaving Exeter)
  • She had stayed because, however lonely she had been with Harold, the world without him would be even more desolate. (Maureen after doctors visit)
  • It was as much of a gift to recieve as to give, requiring as it did both courage and humility. (256)
  • I have come to think we sit more than we're supposed to. Why else would we have feet? (262

  Rachel Joyce has a good story about an ordinary man whom life has beaten down. But he decides to do something ordinary, like walking with the belief it was save a friend. She tells this story from a vantage point where you empathize with Harold Fry and want to understand more about him.

The start of the book is her strongest. She takes you through a series of characters whom Fry listens to, each leaving with a sense of a bit more understanding. These little stories could be individual short stories-she was a writer for BBC Radio, Channel 4. It is the middle to late part of the book where I found the stories chaotic and a bit repulsive. Joyce may have meant it that way. She ties all of the strings back together again at the end, making the story complete and understandable.

Joyce's story caused me to think a bit more about the ordinary things in life and how special you could make them. While it can be a bit sappy, walking to save a person, it does provide context and purpose to Fry's life. It is also a story of reconciliation-reconciliation with Fry's wife and with himself. This is a story of faith, a faith which grows as he walks.

Is it a book worth reading? Yes. First to help you feel good. Second to understand that you can make some difference to someone, even if it in small ways. 

Notes from my book group:

  1. Val, how did you come across this book? Why did you think it would be a good book for us to read?
  2. Why does Fry go for a walk? Why was Harold so motivated to see Queenie? Was Fry running away? If so, from what?
  3. In Chapter 2, there is a dialogue between Harold Fry and the girl in the garage. What is the girl's faith in? Does it matter what her faith is in? How does this talk inspire Harold Fry?  Does it matter that later on in the book, she reveals that her aunt died anyway?
  4. How does the story reveal Fry's personality? His relationships and his fears? How did Fry's upbringing or lack of it, affect how he turned out? His trouble with his own son? Did this lead to his son's suicide? Why couldn't Fry go to say goodbye to his son? Is Joyce's thoughts about Fry's upbringing universally true?
  5. Fry relies on the goodwill of strangers. Do you think this would happen? How would you react to his story?
  6. What kind of woman was Maureen? How does this shape Fry and his desire to see Queenie? How does his love for Maureen get reshaped through the walk?
  7. Joyce has Maureen say that Harold never did the unexpected (chp 3). How is this? Why? Is doing the unexpected a sign of being alive? Being predictable, signing of being a machine? How does a person stop living? 
    1. Awareness
This story is really a form of Harold Fry coming of age--late in life.
See Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London

New Words:
  • Tessellations(52):  A tessellation of a flat surface is the tiling of a plane using one or more geometric shapes, called tiles, with no overlaps and no gaps. In mathematics, tessellations can be generalized to higher dimensions.  Think of a M.C. Escher drawing.
  • Masticate(59):  to grind or crush (food) with or as if with the teeth
  • Dartmoor Trail (97):  Apparently not a real trail, but there are several trails in the area
  • Cotswold Trail (97): The Cotswold Way is a 102-mile (164 km) long-distance footpath, running along the Cotswold Edge escarpment of the Cotswold Hills in England
  • Spiraea (128): genus of about 80 to 100 species[3] of shrubs in the family Rosaceae.
  • Holdall (243):  similar to a gym bag but may often have wheels and possibly a telescopic handle. The term covers a wide variety of types of bag.
  • Morris dancers (263): form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins

Good Quotes:
  • First Line:  the letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday.
  • Last Line: They stood at the water's edge, not letting go , and rocked with laughter.
  •  If you don't go mad once in awhile, there is no hope. (47)
  • Life is very different when you walk through it. (57)
  • Maybe you saw even more than land when you got out of the car and used your feet. (60)
  • Tourists bought trinkets and souvenirs at religious places because they had no idea what else to do when they got there. (111)
  • He no longer saw distance in terms of miles. He measured it in terms of memories. (127)
  • The past is the past; there was no escaping your beginnings, (178)
  • He had a different map, and that was the one in his mind, made up of all the people and places he had passed. (256)
  • He saw that when a person becomes estranged from the things they know, and is a passerby, strange things take on a new significance. (256)
  • The people met, the places he passed, were all steps in his journey, and he kept a place in his heart for each of them. (260)
  • Nobody is so frightening once you stop and listen. (273)
  • If we can't accept what we do not know, there really is no hope. (399)


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