Reader’s Advisory: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I’m in Library School and I am meant for it and it is meant for me; I cannot escape it. While I plan on eventually becoming a Map Librarian, the Public Librarian in me cannot help but escape: I am writing a Reader’s Advisory.

Although it’s probably only going to be books related to the content of this blog, one book whenever I write this, and I’m not sure how long this will last unless people recommend books to me. But we’ll see how it goes.

First on the list: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. A short novel fewer than 400 pages, the story is mainly about…the unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold Fry is a retired old man living in the South of England with his wife Maureen, living a rather mundane and routine life. One day, he receives a letter from an old colleague, Queenie Hennessey, informing him that she is dying of cancer. And suddenly, without much thought, Harold is on his way to see her. More suddenly than anticipated and not how you would think either, as he is going to walk the 600 miles North to where Queenie is in hospice care. While the story is largely about Harold and his experiences and learnings from his pilgrimage, there are intermittent chapters in Maureen’s perspective of the adventure.

The novel captures the feeling of the stereotype of old British men: comfortable, contained, and full of anecdotes that you can probably dig many meanings out of. Taken at face value, it’s like an adventure book, “What will Harold Fry do next??” and that can be good enough. Think about it a little more and you may be inspired to reflect upon your own life, how you love, how you deal with your issues, and how you imagine you’ll feel looking back on your life if you continue living in the manner that you do.

When it comes to somewhat preposterous stories like this, you can end up wondering “what would I do” if it happened to you. What would you do if your retired life was monotonous and entirely lacking passion and warmth? What would you do if somebody you had cared about told you they were dying? How would you fare if you decided to be spontaneous and walk to see a dying friend? How long would your hope last?

I think about this book a lot. It instantly became one of my favourites when Yvonne recommended it to me two or three years ago. She read it quickly and fell in love with it and recommended it to me; I read it quickly and fell in love with it and recommended it to our mom; she read it quickly and fell in love with it. And then it made an appearance again in our lives this April.

Yvonne took care of our dad a lot when he was in the hospital. Eugene and I couldn’t always be there, but she was there all day, pretty much every day. She bought him a food magazine, a gardening magazine, and a magazine about taxes; that sums up dad’s interests pretty well (to complete it, we would just need a magazine about his us, since he was rather obsessed with us). Additionally, she brought The Rosie Project (which is related on Amazon; I’ll have to read it, I suppose), but also The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. (Needless to say, he loved it.) I didn’t know that and also happened to be re-reading it at the same time she was reading it to him.

Maybe it’s the content of the story, hoping that you can save somebody if you try and wish hard enough, or maybe it’s simply the coincidence of reading the story to and while my dad was in the hospital, but to me, this book is always going to remind me of him. Thankfully it’s a fairly happy and hopeful book.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is like You’ve Got Mail (my favourite movie) to me: feel good story, nothing ever really is THAT bad, be hopeful and persevere and even when bad things happen – which they will – you and your relationships will be stronger and better in the end. A big ol’ “YOU CAN DO IT EVEN THOUGH LIFE IS DISAPPOINTING” tale.

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