Book makes you stop, think

The Covington News - - OPINION -

Cham­pagne, any­one? The oc­ca­sion seemed to de­serve cham­pagne, and so we in­dulged our­selves over can­dle­light and books ear­lier this week when our beloved book club marked its 15th an­niver­sary.

That’s not long in the his­tory of the world, but it was good enough rea­son to pause and pay re­spects to the friend­ships we’ve ce­mented and what we’ve learned, not only from each other, but also from the 150 or so books we’ve read in that time.

As writer Ge­orge RR Martin said, “A reader lives a thou­sand lives be­fore he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

In that light, we’ve lived many lives. It is true, how­ever, that the prover­bial fly on the wall might sug­gest that book club mem­bers some­times seem more com­mit­ted to wine and rol­lick­ing con­ver­sa­tion than the scru­tiny of sto­ry­lines and char­ac­ters. But the fly would be wrong.

Con­sid­er­a­tion of the jour­ney we’ve shared prompted the choice of this month’s book: “The Un­likely Pil­grim­age of Harold Fry,” by Bri­tish play­wright Rachel Joyce. It’s a story of dull re­tiree Harold Fry, who is one day jolted out of his com­pla­cency by a let­ter from Quee­nie Hen­nessy, a for­mer co-worker now on her deathbed.

He goes out to mail her a (clumsy) re­sponse, but in­stead of stop­ping at the mail­box at the end of the road, Harold just keeps walk­ing — all the way across Eng­land, from his far south­west­ern home to its north­ern­most vil­lage, over 600 miles. He de­cides to de­liver the note in per­son and, on the way, be­comes con­vinced by a stranger that hav­ing sim­ple faith in the jour­ney will keep her alive.

“He had started some­thing, and he didn’t know what it was, but now that he was do­ing it, he wasn’t ready to fin­ish.”

He leaves be­hind — with­out much ex­pla­na­tion — his con­stant wife, Mau­reen, who lives a small but tidy life, still griev­ing the death of a grown son many years be­fore and blam­ing Harold.

He car­ries noth­ing with him on his im­promptu jour­ney, at first stay­ing in small bed and break­fast inns, then learn­ing to live and sleep out­doors. He en­dures drench­ing rain and cold and suf­fers painful wounds to his feet, clad only in “yacht­ing” shoes.

He is a man alone in his thoughts, seem­ingly in­tro­spec­tive for the first time in his life. With noth­ing but time on his hands, he re­calls an abu­sive child- hood, his ini­tial pas­sion for Mau­reen, his own dif­fi­cul­ties par­ent­ing an only child and the ef­fect on that child, and the enor­mous fa­vor Quee­nie had done for him in their work­place that he had never ac­knowl­edged. “He had lived out his or­di­nary life as if what she had done meant noth­ing.”

Harold is both men­tally and phys­i­cally ex­hausted when he fi­nally reaches his jour­ney’s end at Quee­nie’s bed­side and Mau­reen comes to fetch him home.

The philoso­pher Plato said, “The un­ex­am­ined life is not worth liv­ing.”

In his slow march across Eng­land, Harold Fry has ex­am­ined his life, ex­pos­ing ev­ery dark nook and cranny to the light of can­did as­sess­ment and ex­pung­ing him­self from feel­ings of guilt and un­wor­thi­ness.

One reader re­view found on­line said: “I was re­minded that it’s never too late to start over. That we all have to come face to face with our ghosts, and that doesn’t hap­pen on our own time. It hap­pens on its own nat­u­ral course un­de­ter­mined by us (much like all as­pects of our lives).

“I am re­minded of the courage it takes to face our demons, and how we can­not be­gin to live fully, openly or hon­estly un­til we have looked them dead in the eyes, no mat­ter how dif­fi­cult or im­plau­si­ble the jour­ney is that takes us to meet them.”

An­other on­line re­view- er said: “I see it as a work that truly re­flects the re­grets, the wasted op­por­tu­ni­ties and the ter­ri­bly con­stricted lives that so many peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence.

It made me think about my own mis­takes, missed op­por­tu­ni­ties and the things I could do to make a dif­fer­ence in my own life, which makes this book rather more pow­er­ful than a typ­i­cal novel.”

In case you’re won­der­ing about the end­ing, this re­viewer also said, “You never get the sense of a sim­ply sac­cha­rine ‘happy ever af­ter’ con­clu­sion.”

“Most men,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet des­per­a­tion and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

“Quiet des­per­a­tion” aptly de­scribes the life that Harold Fry lived be­fore his un­planned trek.

As bro­ken as he was at the end, he had freed him­self of the cage in which he had lived un­til then.

It shouldn’t take a 600mile trek for each of us to ob­tain the same out­come Harold re­al­ized.

Things like an­niver­saries, mile­stone birthdays, births, deaths, even good in­ten­tions gone bad can in­spire the same sort of in­tro­spec­tion and ex­am­i­na­tion of our lives.

Bar­bara Mor­gan is a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent with a back­ground in news­pa­per jour­nal­ism, state govern­ment and pol­i­tics. She can be reached at

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