Book makes you stop, think
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.