The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” (2012)

Herbert Welsh walked from Philadelphia to Sunapee,” I said, and paused, briefly, not long enough for Amy to ask the question I wanted to ask, “Is that even possible?”

Not impossible, but highly unlikely, which brings me to the title, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012),  a novel by Rachel Joyce. Walking books are legion; novels somewhat more rare. Fiction favors the picaro, the rascal whose adventures–often connected only by the travels of the anti-hero, who lives an entertaining story. It’s fun to read because he’s a rogue (he’s usually male), not because he’s on foot.

Harold Fry is no rogue. Mid sixties, dully married, 45 years a drudge and just retired, Fry gets a note from an old friend. Queenie lives 600 miles away, and is dying. On the way to the box to mail Queenie his condolences, Fry decides to just keep walking:

Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.

Fry is no pilgrim either.  He arrives slowly at the idea of a potential religious, or spiritual, connotation of walking  to save a soul. A shopgirl he meets between Wessex and The Borders reveals it to him.  He meets people like that, and hears a lot of stories on his walk; these picaresque episodes are fun to read. The mystery–who is Queenie, and why must Harold see her?–is less fascinating.  My response went from Who cares? to Oh, now I get it rather too quickly.

But along the way (pun intended) I really enjoyed all the stories: the sadly closeted elderly gay man, the Eastern European woman who nurses Fry to health, the fanatic who follows him. Fry is like “The Man of the Crowd,” or, at any rate, Fry’s tale puts the reader in the position of the nameless narrator of that Edgar Allan Poe story, observing a tumultuous sea of human variety.

That “mood of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs,” is common to all walk books, even this unlikely one. But The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is anomaly among walks, because no pilgrim actually made the pilgrimage. I will return to the question of pilgrimage on my way.

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