Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

It is said that there are only two stories: A man goes on a journey or A stranger comes to town. When I talk to people who are caregivers or who want to write about their caregiving experience I ask them, “Which one of those is your story?” There is no right answer, of course. Cancer is a journey that men and women go on whether they are the person with cancer or the person doing the caregiving. And equally true--Cancer is a stranger that comes to your town.

This week I am reading another wonderful book that I’ll add to the list of Cancer Books. But this new book is fiction and it’s message quite unexpected. It’s also about a part of the cancer experience that we rarely talk about and that is spirituality. Maybe even harder to talk about than sex, God and faith and spirituality are a part of life with cancer.

The book is called “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” and the author is Rachel Joyce. Perhaps you’ve seen some of the reviews recently. “The Unlikely Pilgrimage…” was nominated for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Perhaps too, like me, even if you read the reviews you didn’t think, “cancer book”, but indeed it’s one for us.

Harold Fry is a late-middle-aged man who lives a quite dull life near The English Channel. His grown son is gone away. They barely communicate. Harold’s marriage is dry and stale like old toast. Then one day he gets a letter from a former coworker—who he hasn’t seen in 20 years—and she’s written to tell him that she is dying of cancer. This odd letter and this odd moment in Harold’s life set him out on a walking journey—he’ll walk 627 miles to see Queenie—his former colleague—and the story is what happens to Harold along the way.

Rachel Joyce is a careful, subtle writer. She does not make Harold miraculous and she does not pound us with the wonder of ordinary life. But as we look thru Harold’s “everyman” eyes, we are confronted with both the spectacle and questions of faith and human goodness.

Yes, the word “pilgrim” is no accident. One of the greatest books in English—and for the English—is John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” –the story of another quite ordinary man journeying a long distance, through multiple obstacles, in his search for faith.

In Cancer Land we are journeying and we are seeking faith in god or medicine or family or in ourselves. “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” is an inspiring and entertaining model.

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