Harold Fry and his wife Maureen live in the town of Kingsbridge, in Devon, England. That is way at the southern end of the country, on the coast. Their only son is out of the house, and their marriage is silent and strained, Maureen having moved into the spare bedroom 20 years ago. Harold has just retired six months ago, and now finds he has little to do but mow the grass, and sit.
One day he receives a letter from an old colleague at work, saying she has cancer, and the doctors tell her there is nothing more they can do for her, and she just wanted to say goodbye. Harold is stunned by this, and tries to write a reply. He discovers that there is almost nothing to be said — how does one respond to such a letter? He finally scribbles something, stuffs it in an envelope, tells Maureen he is off to mail the letter in the post box not to far away.
As he reaches the mailbox, he can’t bring himself to drop the letter in. He tells himself he will just mail it in the next one, and keeps walking. He does this until he is almost outside of town, and stops at a place for a burger. For some reason he tells the young woman waitress of the dilemma, and she comforts him by saying that belief can bring a cure. He thinks about this, and gets the notion in his head that if he walks to the hospice facility to see his old friend, she will live, that the act of his walking will keep her alive. So he sets off on foot for Berwick-Upon-Tweed, which is way up north, near the top of England. He stops along the way to call, leaving a message with the nurse to tell his friend he is coming on foot and to wait for him. And off he goes in his yachting shoes, and only his pension money to travel on. He even left his cell phone behind.
Thus begins a Forrest Gump-like pilgrimage, starting off alone, and gradually collecting a ragtag group of fellow walkers, each with their own story. He finds the world different when one is on foot, buys himself a plant identification book, and learns to love the earth. The crowd of followers increases, publicity ensues, chaos starts to take an upper hand, until one of the walkers with his own agenda sets off on a different tract, taking the rest of the walkers with him, leaving Harold, much to his relief, alone again.
As he walks and memories of his life come flooding in, we learn of his childhood, when his mother walked out when he was 12, his father never wanted him, and gave him the boot when he was 16, his meeting with Maureen, his young fatherhood, his unruly, strange son whom he never understood. And we learn why he would set off on a 500 mile journey for a work colleague whom he hasn’t seen nor heard from in 20 years.
Maureen is at first glad he is gone, then upset that he may never return. She rarely leaves the house, always waiting in case her son might pop by for a visit. She cleans. That’s what she does. She cleans and does laundry.
One foot in front of the other. Step by step. Little by little, we learn it all.
It is a beautiful, gentle, warm book, but I was a bit surprised it would garner prizes, leaning as it does so heavily on the Forrest Gump trope. (Life is like a box of chocolates), but it does pull at you, nevertheless. It has all the right pilgrimage ingredients: the quest to save someone, the Chaucerian travelers’ tales, the modern day Walk for the Cure, the Tinkerbell method of healing, (If we believe in fairies, Tinkerbell will live.), and walking as meditation. Does he save the enchanted princess? Does he slay the dragon? Find the treasure? Is there a happy ending? Is there ever a happy ending?
I really liked it, but not book-award amount of liking. But then, I guess that is why nobody asks me to be on a committee to select worthy recipients of book awards.