FICTION: "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry," by Rachel Joyce.

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 21, 2012 - 4:18 PM

A man heads out on a walking journey to deliver a letter to a dying friend.

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY By: Rachel Joyce.

You have to love Harold Fry, a man who set out one morning to mail a letter and then just kept going. His pilgrimage began by accident; at first, he passed up several mailboxes hoping to reach one with an earlier collection time, and then, after a while, "somehow it felt right, just to keep putting one foot in front of the other."

He will hand-deliver his letter, he decides, even though the intended recipient is more than 600 miles away. Harold is completely unequipped for a journey of this sort -- he is 64 years old, not in the best of health, and wearing ordinary clothes and casual shoes. He doesn't have his cellphone, or a map, or even an umbrella. And yet, he keeps walking.

Harold lives in a small town in the southwest of England. Since his retirement, he's had little to occupy his time, and his wife, Maureen, spurts around him busily, cleaning their already pristine house and muttering complaints -- about how sloppy he is at buttering toast, or how foolish he is for confusing jam and marmalade.

It's amusing at first, until you begin to see the deep unhappiness underlying it all. Harold is living under a burden of guilt and misery that has been crushing him slowly for 20 years. Everything begins to change the morning he receives a letter from an old friend, a woman named Queenie Hennessy. Queenie is in hospice in Scotland, and she is writing to say goodbye.

Harold's trek to deliver his reply (which says only, "Thank you for your letter. I am very sorry.") goes through several marvelous stages. Like Christian in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress," Harold becomes Everyman in the eyes of those who encounter him. Strangers confide their most bizarre and troubling secrets, take him in when his badly blistered feet give out, give him water and nourishment.

They make assumptions -- romantic, of course -- about his relationship with Queenie. The press gets wind of him, and you can imagine just how fun that is. Eventually, despite Harold's quietly affirmed atheism, the trip takes on religious overtones, and he develops a small following of squabbling pilgrims who try to co-opt his mission.

The story is Harold's, but several chapters are told from Maureen's point of view as she holds down the fort at home, and we begin to understand the deep abyss between them.

This book has been blurbed enthusiastically by Helen Simonson, and fans of her delightful "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" will certainly find a kindred spirit here -- another story about a stoic Englishman who leaves his village to do something bold toward the end of his life. But this book is darker than Simonson's, laced with betrayal, guilt and immense, terrible loss.

Harold's journey, which parallels Christian's nicely but not overly neatly, takes him to the edge of death and back again. It will stick with you, this story of faith, fidelity and redemption.

Laurie Hertzel • 612-673-7302

  • THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY

    By: Rachel Joyce.

    Publisher: Random House, 286 pages, $25.

    Review: This modern-day "Pilgrim's Progress" follows the transformation of a grieving, guilt- ridden man and his dying marriage.

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