Cannonball Read V: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I’ve read a lot of wonderfully written books about the horrible thing that is cancer. Having lost a parent to cancer, the books that have hit me the hardest and reduced me to a pile of tears were the first half of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Fault in Our Stars, and now this lovely book by Rachel Joyce.
Harold Fry and his wife Maureen are pensioners living on the very southern tip of England, right on the ocean. Their marriage is stale — they barely speak to each other, and have slept in separate bedrooms for 20 years. Maureen busies herself by cleaning and laundering every single thing she can get her hands on. And Harold sits and sits and sits.
Until, one day, Harold receives a letter from a former colleague, Queenie Hennessy. He hasn’t heard from her in 20 years, and she writes to say good-bye. She is dying of cancer in a hospice way up in Scotland, over 600 miles away. Harold writes Queenie a brief note, gets up to mail it at the corner postbox, and then, well, he decides to keep walking.
Harold realizes that Queenie deserves more than a brief note dumped in the mail. Queenie deserves her goodbye in person. And so Harold, with only his windbreaker on his back, starts to walk to Queenie.
His journey is a beautifully written picture of life. He walks alone, and with others. He remembers the past — both the wonderful and the terrible. He wishes he had been a better father to his son, David, whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. And he realizes that he failed Queenie, who did him a huge favor 20 years ago, and he never got a chance to thank her. He has wonderful days when he believes that if he keeps walking, he’ll keep Queenie alive. And then he has days when he more or less loses his mind and feels he’d be better off dead.
While walking, Harold changes from a quiet, reserved, solitary man, to a more outgoing and trusting sort. He relies on the kindness of strangers to get him along on his journey. My favorite was the Slovakian doctor with the tendency to swear.
Meanwhile, Maureen spends her time thinking about the past as well. With the help of her neighbor, the widower Rex, she realizes that Harold isn’t the bad guy that she’s made him out to be for the past 20 years, and that she is equally to blame for their falling out. Most importantly, she realizes that she misses him and loves him.
The story and the writing reminded me a lot of another favorite, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. They both presented a slice of life in England for people of a certain age (Harold completes the majority of his walk wearing a tie — how very British!), and made me wish I was over in England on vacation, driving along Harold’s route to see the beauty as he saw it.
The ending drove me to tears, as mentioned. My memories of hospice were a bit overwhelming, and Rachel Joyce’s description of Queenie’s final home was almost too much for me to take. But I’m so glad I read it and want to thank all the Cannonballers out there who reviewed it first.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)