“The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other.” The protagonist of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry discovers that truth as he meets all kinds of interesting men and women on his journey to the deathbed of a former colleague named Queenie Hennessy. She once extended a great kindness to him he has never acknowledged.
Before he begins his life changing pilgrimage Harold himself is at a point where he too is just ‘putting one foot in front of the other.’ Recently retired from a less than rewarding job in a brewery and bearing the scars of a family tragedy, Harold’s uneventful life is interrupted only by the way nearly everything he does or doesn’t do irritates his wife.
On his way to mail a letter to Queenie he decides to deliver it personally and thus begins a spur of the moment walk that takes him across more than 600 miles of British countryside. On his journey he meets a collection of diverse characters who tell him their stories. He realizes there are plenty of people just like him, trying only to keep their heads above the waters of life. They are simply ‘putting one foot in front of the other’ as they face illness, abandonment, personal demons, death or empty relationships. Yet despite their struggles many still take an interest in Harold and show him kindness.
I liked Harold’s story even more in hindsight because I read it only a week before I too was required to ‘just put one foot in front of the other.’ Two family members were facing health crisis and as I shuttled between hospitals on either end of Winnipeg I sometimes wasn’t quite sure how I would juggle everything and get through the day. I had to concentrate on doing the task immediately ahead of me or reaching the destination next on my list, trying not to think too far down the road. During my time at bedsides, waiting for test results and driving back and forth across the city I often thought about Harold and his journey.
I think another reason I liked this book is because I love to walk. That’s why I wanted to live in the heart of a city so I could walk most places. Walking clears my head, eases my heart and makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. The thing that troubled me the most during my week of ‘just putting one foot in front of the other’ was that I had no time to walk. For Harold Fry the actual act of walking is very therapeutic.
During his time on the road he reflects on his past relationships with his parents, his son and his wife. He remembers both the difficult and the positive aspects of these relationships. Walking also lets him think of new possibilities for a different future. I used to listen to my I-pod while I walked, but since I’ve retired, I find like Harold, I’d rather use my walking time to think about past experiences and come up with ideas for new adventures I’d like to have or new things I’d like to write about.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has become a best seller because readers identify with its protagonist. We all have times when we feel like we are ‘just putting one foot in front of the other.’ Harold helps us see that in carrying out that very act we have the power to change our lives, build rewarding relationships and look forward with hope.
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