Archive | 11:52 AM

Book Club Reflection: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

2 Feb

The best thing about book clubs is that sometimes it helps you like a book you hated. Thankfully, this happened to me last week when my book club met to discuss The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. I wasn’t moved by the book because I didn’t connect with the characters but knowing how much some of my fellow readers sympathized with the characters made me appreciate the writing more.

(This post contains spoilers. Please proceed with caution. We used the questions in the back of the book to guide our discussion. If your copy doesn’t have these questions, you can find them on LitLovers.)

We all thought the author was trying to say a lot about the human condition. Personally, I thought she was trying to say too much, but that wasn’t the popular opinion. The majority of our group really liked this book and though Joyce had an incredible understanding of her characters and what they were going through. Only one member thought the ending seemed contrived but most of us found it fitting and we liked how we slowly got more and more about David.
The letter that Harold writes to the garage girl on page 284 really broke our hearts. We feel bad for him because of how taxing his journey is, but to realize what emotional baggage he’s dragging around with him makes it even harder.

We had one new member this month who had an amazingly similar story to that of Harold. She shared with us that her son had hung himself when he was 19 and told us how she dealt with it as a parent. She said she related to the existential trauma that Harold went through because her sense of meaning was greatly disturbed. Luckily, this woman was able to talk about what she was going through and it helped her to avoid the extended trauma that Harold was suffering from. She said that her husband had reacted more like Maureen and wanted someone or something to point a finger at and blame. Their different reactions to the trauma unfortunately caused their marriage to fail. This woman went on to become a social worker and I was awed with her emotional strength and awareness. I’d like to think I could be so strong in the face of something so terrifying, but I’m afraid I might fail. It was an honor to hear her story. Hearing that someone related so well to Harold is part of what made me like the story more.

There are not many things that could encourage me to do what Harold did and that sense of unlikelihood is part of what I didn’t like about the story. A few people talked about something that could make them go through that journey. Many of us thought about a charity that we’re invested in for personal reasons, but in many cases money seems to be a better donation. Someone brought up another ‘pilgrimage after tragedy’ example. A step-son of one of our members is soon to lose his wife to a disease. He thinks that once she’s gone, he’s going to need to be with himself for a long time. He plans to hike the Appalachian Trail for a few months. Putting Harold’s walk in a similar context makes it more logical to me. The step-son needs to be alone to think about what he’s experienced and come to peace with it internally without the noise of the rest of the world holding him back. Harold needed the same thing but it was delayed more than it should have been.

Maureen was bearing the burden of David’s death alone because Harold was unable to talk about it. Being able to talk to Rex finally helped her feel free. She was very lost and didn’t seem to know how to deal with her experience. She needed Rex to take charge of her recovery process. In the same vein, Rex needed to take charge of something to deal with the loss of his wife. They had a very beneficial relationship. They both healed by knowing that someone else had gone through a trauma like their own.

Harold was attached to a lot of memories of David. The one he continued to return to was when David almost drowned at the beach. His inability to save his son from drowning made him feel like a failure as a parent. Someone pointed out that Harold was incapable of being spontaneous enough to jump in the water. He’d had to over think things for so much of his childhood that it couldn’t be taken out of his personality. If he was going to get in the water, he had to follow process and take his shoes off. He was still trying to save his son but he went about it the only way he knew how.

On page 313, there’s this line about Queenie’s last breath,

Queenie parted her lips, hunting for the next intake of air. And when it didn’t come, but something else did, it was as easy as breathing.

It wasn’t hard for Queenie to let go but it was very challenging for Harold we decided that leaving his home was him finally starting to let go and that the walk was the process.

David’s death affected Harold and Maureen separately and their relationship together. They seemed to retreat into their individual selves when David died, but we wondered if the two of them had retreated from the world before that. It seems possible that they were not a very outgoing couple. When Maureen took the curtains down at the end of the book, it seemed to make her younger and she seemed ready to embrace the world. We wondered if this was the first time she’d done that or the first time since David had died. I don’t think we ever came to a satisfactory answer.

It seems such a simple thing for Maureen to tell Harold that Queenie stopped by before leaving town but she was an angry woman. If she was mad at him for being drunk or blamed him for David’s death, we never know. Likely it’s a combination of both. We wondered if Maureen worried that Harold and Queenie were intimate with each other. Maybe she was jealous of another woman. Or maybe she was jealous that her husband had someone to talk to about David’s death while she was alone.

Maureen carried a lot of anger with her but we couldn’t decide if it came about at David’s death or not. It seemed to be something that might have resulted from the drowning incident or earlier. She used Harold as a scapegoat so that her anger wasn’t as widely spread, but we couldn’t find the source of what turned her from an eager bride into a bitter woman.

For those that thought her anger came about after David’s death, we started to feel bad for her when we learned about the suicide. We thought for a long time that she was on the phone with David and we denying Harold the right to speak with his son. Joyce very artfully unfolded the true situation so that we’d feel sympathy for her characters.

One of our questions asked us why Harold chose to live off the land and the kindness of strangers. We think he realized that others felt good when they helped him. They found him vulnerable, even if he didn’t think he was, and took a sense of pride in helping him. He’s been alone so long that exposing himself to the whole country was very liberating. Most of his journey was based on ‘put good in, get good out.’ He thought if he put in the effort to save Queenie, she would be saved. He also felt that if he wasn’t out to hurt anyone, he wouldn’t get hurt. He thought the universe would help him if he helped Queenie. He needed to learn to receive from other to heal. This wasn’t likely the best way to handle this lesson, but Harold wasn’t the most logical of people.

Many of the people Harold met on his journey were not given names. Many of these people were uncomfortably honest with Harold about what was going on in their lives and that’s easier to do with a stranger. The things they said were what Harold remembered even if he was told their names. There were the cycling moms and as their defining characteristic, that’s how Harold remembered them. What more would he need?

I had not thought about the Christian allegory in this book until a member point it out. It was obvious to him, but I never got wise to it. Harold gathers followers (disciples) around him as he goes about the country and instilling faith in the people around him. He wanders the English countryside (desert) for 40 days. He’s betrayed by his followers. He goes off on his own to be alone and cleanse himself (pray). It seems so obvious to me now!

The followers also reminded us of the runners who followed Forrest Gump. Forrest and Harold had their own reasons for wanting to go on their journey and other people followed for their personal reasons, not the same ones that drove Forrest or Harold. And in both, the media capitalized on the journey. Hm.

Wilf was the most interesting person in Harold’s group of followers in my opinion. He was a kleptomaniac and even though his habit hurt Harold, Harold hid it for him. This reminded us of how Harold would hide David’s drinking, just sweeping it away. If they never talked about it, it never happened. Harold must have felt that if he saved Wilf and protected him, it was like protecting David. Though now that we know how that ended, it probably wasn’t for the best.

I asked the group about the things Harold bought along the way. They seemed random to me and some of them were heavy and breakable (I’m thinking of the honey in particular). What would compel him to carry these things around the countryside with him? In the end, Queenie liked the quartz and if she’d been more in her right mind, she might have enjoyed all of them but I still don’t understand the burden he placed on himself for these items.

Toward the end, a lot of us feared Harold was dying. His state was deteriorating and he seemed to be confused. I knew he had to be okay because the cover image on our copy had a man and woman walking on the beach. I figured that the man was Harold but didn’t know until the end if the woman was Queenie or Maureen. It seemed a little far-fetched that it would be Queenie after all of the trouble Harold went through but it also seemed a bit unbelievable that Harold and Maureen could patch things up so cleanly. The social worker in our groups said it would be very unusual for their marriage to survive and thrive after what they’d gone through in the book. A few people thought their marriage might deteriorate after they went back home. As much as I want them to be happy, I do have to admit it seems unlikely that it will happen.

 So there you have it! A great discussion that helped turn my opinion on this book. I’m so glad I went to the discussion. Our next book is Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat and I’m really enjoying it so far.

Until next time, write on.

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