I’m a sucker for a good pilgrimage.
It occurs to me that’s a main reason I — and perhaps others — read fiction, to take a journey of sorts and to learn from other people’s. In worthwhile fiction – even when a protagonist never leaves his/her room or house or town — there is always some kind of movement that leads to transformation.
So of course, I was caught by the title of Rachel Joyce’s first novel. A man walks through England — what’s not to like about that?
Harold Fry is retired. His lawn can only be mowed so often. His wife, Maureen, seems to have little use for him. Their only child, David, is absent from their lives.
When a letter comes for Harold from Queenie, an old friend he hasn’t thought of in years, he learns she’s in a hospice dying of cancer. He writes a short response, takes it to the postbox … and then, instead of mailing his note, just keeps walking, in his light jacket and yachting shoes, all the way from the southwest to the northeast coast of his country.
Harold has decided that as long as he walks, Queenie will live. So he walks.
Covering the slow, often physically painful, miles, Harold recalls his life, the parts that involved Queenie and the parts that didn’t.
He meets people who are kind to him in unexpected ways as well as people who will use his trek for their own ends. But Harold learns that everyone has a story, and all are looking for something.
When he realizes it is “as much of a gift to receive as … to give, requiring as it [does] both courage and humility,” he mails his wallet, with his debit card, home and from then on relies completely on others.
Meanwhile, Maureen is left alone, except for her conversations with her son — and the gentle support of an elderly neighbor. And though she only briefly leaves home, and then in a car, she takes a journey that turns out to be as ground-shifting as Harold’s.
Cheryl Strayed’s pilgrimage, of course, was not fictional, though she waited 15 years to write about it and so necessarily had to reconstruct some of her memories and conversations.
“Because Wild is not just a chronicle of my hike,” she told an interviewer, “but also the story of the inward journey I was on, I needed to see how my experience on the [Pacific Crest Trail] settled into my life before I could write about it with depth and meaning.”
Unlike Harold, Strayed planned and deliberated (though not, as she soon discovered, well enough) her journey before embarking on it.
She was 22 and her life was disintegrating when she decided to walk — alone — the 1,100 miles from California’s Mojave Desert to the coast mountains of Washington. Her father was long gone from her life, her mother had died in her 40s of cancer, her marriage was falling apart and she was on the brink of heroin addiction.
Strayed encounters the problems you might expect of such a journey – black toenails, hunger and thirst, cold, vulnerability and loneliness.
But her journey, like Harold’s, brings her into contact with the kindness of strangers and gives her no hiding places from herself — which is so much more the point of a pilgrimage than the walking.
Whether your tastes run to fiction or nonfiction, the story of these people’s journeys — Harold, Maureen and Cheryl — is likely to take you a few steps along the path of your own life pilgrimage.
Melanie Zuercher is a writer and editor for Bethel College in North Newton.