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February 22, 2013

An unlikely pilgrimage

If you enjoy contemporary fiction with religious themes, then you will love "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry."

In this first novel by Rachel Joyce, unassuming retiree Harold begins walking 600 miles to the north of England to deliver a letter that he had intended to drop in a mailbox. Queenie, Harold’s former colleague, is dying of cancer and, due to a conversation about faith, Harold thinks that perhaps he can extend Queenie’s life if she knows he is walking the letter to her.

Wearing his boat shoes and a thin windbreaker, without a map, water or even his cell phone, Harold sets out on his pilgrimage. Bald, paunchy and slightly depressed, Harold has never walked farther than his own driveway. With nothing to do but walk and think, he is flooded by memories of his childhood, the early years of his now-stale marriage, and the gradual estrangement with his only son.

As the weeks slip by, however, Harold begins to take delight in the countryside around him, despite painful blisters and constant hunger and thirst. He notices each bud and sunrise and begins to realize that the crazy characters he meets on his journey are not to be feared -- they just want someone to listen to them.

He is given hospitality by people like Martina, the doctor trained in Slovakia who can only get cleaning work in England. She sees him collapse and invites him in. Like Mary Magdalene she washes his dirty and bleeding feet. He tells her, “I can’t explain why I think I can get there, when all the odds are against it. But I do. Even when a big part of me is saying I should give up, I can’t. Even when I don’t want to keep going, I still do it.”

An unexpected conversation with a journalist makes Harold famous. Everyone who reads about his unlikely pilgrimage in the newspapers is starved for the kind of hope he represents. They wave at Harold as he passes by, and place their faith in his crazy, good-will pilgrimage.

Unwillingly, Harold becomes a sort of Christ figure, and begins to be followed by a band of “disciples,” who walk with him on the road, have T-shirts made and argue about who is a true follower. Harold does not want companions, but cares patiently for them, though they slow him down. Like Jesus’ disciples, they can’t understand Harold’s true intentions and even begin to doubt his sanity. They “betray” him by abandoning him, carrying on the pilgrimage without him, as he wanders for a while in a different direction.

The book is ultimately about Harold’s reconciliation with his wife and with his past, but it is also about the extraordinary courage and tenacity of one very out-of-shape man and his faithfulness to his friend Queenie and to common decency in a difficult world.

It is about Harold’s ability to step out on a limb, leaving his family and his home, and do something uncharacteristic, spontaneous and self-sacrificial, to save someone he loves. His love and kindness to strangers, his ability to accept everyone he meets and to listen gently to their stories remind us of Christ, though Harold says, “I’m afraid religion is not something I ever quite got the hang of.”

In this novel, Joyce does not boldly proclaim religious faith, but rather, in the style of Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor, she offers us glimpses of grace and of grace-filled Christian leadership in a broken and hopeless world, in the unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry.

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