The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
If you look at the book cover of Rachel Joyce’s first novel, you may be expecting a happy, quirky, light read. While a very good read, this is not a light or happy book. It’s about a journey taken by Harold Fry, whose life is rather empty. His wife Maureen cleans obsessively; Harold does yard work. He gets a letter from former coworker and friend Queenie Hennessey with news that she is very ill with cancer. Harold writes a brief note and goes to post it, but is troubled that a note is inadequate. Harold was a brewery sales representative who traveled with bookkeeper Queenie to visit pubs. So he keeps walking while he thinks about it. A talk with a young woman at a gas station’s convenience store inspires him to keep walking, the whole length of England, to visit Queenie.
His wife Maureen is flabbergasted, and can’t decide if she’s more angry, worried about him, or lonely. Harold is not much of a walker, and gets lots of blisters. He sends postcards to Maureen and Queenie, and buys souvenirs for them along the way. His wife is concerned that he will empty their retirement savings account on such a long journey, so Harold starts camping instead of staying in hotels. Harold is very shy, and has always felt akward because he’s tall, but people like to tell him their stories. His walk to save Queenie inspires some fans and even gets some publicity, leading to some funny parts of the story. Harold’s long pilgrimage gives him lots of time to think, and to reflect on his life. The journey eventually answers some questions for the reader. Why did Maureen move into the spare room, yet they stay married? Why does their bright, troubled son David never come to visit? Why did Queenie leave the brewery, and why doesn’t Harold drink? Will Harold’s walk for Queenie make a difference? And, finally, will Harold be able to finish his pilgrimage? A memorable journey for Harold and the reader.
Kiwis Might Fly, by Polly Evans
This is the second book I’ve read by Polly Evans, and her books are the ultimate in armchair travel entertainment. Follow Brit Polly as she takes a solo motorcycle tour of New Zealand, just weeks after getting licensed to drive a motorcycle. The bike she rents is so heavy she can’t pick it up when it falls over, as happens more than once. With Polly, we see all the amazing sights, cities, and wildlife of North and South Islands, while seeking to discover if the original Kiwi bloke still exists. Speaking of Kiwis, her description of a guided nighttime hike looking for the flightless kiwi birds is hilarious. She finds the people friendly, and visits with many friends of friends or relatives, and finds many of the men quite manly, but with a softer side that makes her wonder if they’ve all gone modern. Even the tough sheep shearers are affectionate parents. Kiwi ingenuity is widespread, but many immigrants are equally creative. There is quite a bit of history in the beginning chapters, but then the reader gets caught up in Polly’s adventures as she travels around the country. Polly claims to be a bit cowardly, but goes on marvelous adventures, and doesn’t even get seasick. Hiking, climbing, tethered flying, fishing, kayaking, and sheep shearing are all described. Only two things really seem to scare her: falling off her motorcycle, and bungee jumping. Driving through a hailstorm isn’t fun, either. Previously she rode a bicycle all over Spain, and in later books she takes public transportation around China, rides a horse and tangos in Argentina, and learns to drive sled dogs in the Yukon. We don’t own her books, but they are available in nearby libraries, and can be requested through interlibrary loan. For more about Polly’s travels and photos from her travel’s, visit her website. Also recommended is Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, about travels in Australia.