Minimalists in Fiction: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

the unlikely pilgrimage of harold fry

“I wanted to write about the small, the ordinary; the beauty, the humour, the sorrow of those things.”

– Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

I first heard about The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, on my friend Joy’s blog. I was drawn in by her comment that “this book made me re-evaluate the simple act of walking.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was a long-list finalist (top 12) for the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Without spoiling the book for you, I’ll share the basic plot. Harold Fry of Kingsbridge has recently retired. He receives a letter from a coworker he hasn’t heard from in 20 years.

Queenie Hennessy is dying of cancer and is in a hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold writes her a brief note and goes to post it, but instead keeps walking to the next mailbox, and the next.

Eventually he calls the hospital and leaves a message for Queenie: “Tell her Harold Fry is on his way. All she has to do is wait. Because I am going to save her, you see. I will keep walking and she must keep living.”

If, like me, you’re not familiar with England, you probably have no idea how far Kingsbridge is from Berwick-upon-Tweed. According to Google Maps, it’s 467 miles, but, for various reasons, including the fact that he doesn’t have a map, Harold’s journey ends up being 627 miles.

“Thank you. That’s really kind. But I don’t want to carry too much.”

– Harold Fry

Naturally, a great deal happens on Harold’s walk that I won’t disclose, but I was struck by Harold’s new life as a minimalist. He left home without intending to go any farther than the mailbox, so he’s wearing yacht shoes and a light jacket.

He’s left his cell phone at home. He doesn’t even have a map.

Early on his journey, Harold stops for some basic supplies, which he carries in a plastic bag: plasters (aka bandaids), deodorant, a comb, a toothbrush, plastic razors, shaving foam and laundry washing powder.

Reaching Exeter, he initially plans to buy some proper walking equipment (like walking boots and a rucksack), but buys only a windup flashlight. He tells himself that “he had managed perfectly well with his yachting shoes and his plastic bag, and with a little ingenuity he could carry his toothbrush and shaving foam in one pocket and his deodorant and washing powder in the other.”

As he left Exeter the next morning, he also bought a secondhand dictionary of wildflowers and a guide to Great Britain.

On one of their phone calls, his wife asks if he’d like her to send anything on, his phone or spare clothes? He declines her offer, though he later accepts a rucksack and compass from a kind doctor from Slovakia.

Yet as he continues his walk, he lightens his load again. He gives away his washing powder, flashlight, plasters, comb, plant dictionary and Great Britain guide to various people he encounters.

He even mails his debit card to his wife with a note, “I am going to walk without so many things. If I keep it simple, I know I can get there.”

“Anybody can do what I’m doing,” he says. “But you have to let go. You have to let go of the things you think you need like cash cards and phones and maps and things.”

“And yet hearing of Harold’s long walk — so simple, so impractical, so revolutionary — is a heartening reminder of just what those old pilgrims knew about the power of shaking off everything familiar and striking out for a distant place with a hallowed purpose and hopeful heart.”

– Ron Charles, The Washington Post

As Harold walks, he reflects on himself, his history and the people he meets. He remembers things he “didn’t know” he’d forgotten. He learns some basic truths about humanity and to accept others without judgment.

He had learned that it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too….Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.

The silver-haired gentleman was in truth nothing like the man Harold had first imagined him to be. He was a chap like himself, with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a café and did not share his teacake….It must be the same all over England. People were buying milk, or filling their cars with petrol, or even posting letters. And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside.

“‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ is…about all the wonderful everyday things Harold discovers through the mere process of putting one foot in front of the other.”

– Janet Maslin, The New York Times

Harold learns to be mindful and is awed by the beauty of nature he has missed all these years.

Life was very different when you walked through it. Between gaps in the banks, the land rolled up and down, carved into checkered fields, and lined with ridges of hedging and trees. He had to stop to look. There were so many shades of green Harold was humbled. Some were almost a deep velvety black, others so light they verged on yellow. Far way the sun caught a passing car, maybe a window, and the light trembled across the hills like a fallen star. How was it he had never noticed all this before?

But there were days when he wasn’t aware of himself, or his walking, or the land. He wasn’t thinking about anything; at least not anything that was related to words. He simply was. He felt the sun on his shoulders, watched a kestrel on silent wings, and all the time the ball of his foot pushed his heel from the ground, and weight shifted from one leg to the other, and this was everything.

While there is much more to the story than I’ve shared here, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry shows us some of the benefits (as well as hardships) of paring down to the bare necessities.

Have you read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry? Who’s your favorite minimalist in fiction? Please share below.