Dads Who Go The Distance

haroldfryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2013)




usUs by David Nicholls (2014)




Father’s Day is the perfect time to highlight two noteworthy books featuring particularly intrepid dads.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Us by David Nicholls tell the stories of two men who travel well outside their comfort zones to discover the truth about themselves, right past wrongs and attempt to save their families.

Retired salesman Harold Fry is sharing a terse breakfast with his wife, Maureen, when he receives a troubling letter.  His former co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, is dying and has written to say goodbye.  Although Harold hasn’t heard from Queenie in 20 years, the news jolts him out of his mundane existence.  He hastily pens a reply and sets out to post it, but walks right by the nearest mailbox, and the one after that and even the one after that.  He decides to keep on walking until he reaches Queenie’s bedside at the northern tip of England.  “I’m setting off right now,” he tells the hospice nurse over the phone.  “As long as I walk, she must live.  Please tell her this time I won’t let her down.”

Us begins with a similarly disturbing announcement, when Douglas Petersen’s wife, Connie, awakens him in the middle of the night to confess that she is thinking of leaving him.  The news comes shortly before Douglas, a staid biochemist, and Connie, a broad-minded artist and museum administrator, are set to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe with their university-bound son, Albie.  Stunned and unable to imagine life without Connie, Douglas seizes upon this ambitious family vacation as his last opportunity to save his marriage.  Unfortunately, his checklist for a successful trip – including items like “Be fun” and “Try to relax” and “Avoid conflict with Albie” – does not bode well.

As Harold and Douglas leave their normal routines behind, they are able to reflect on the events that have brought them to this point.  These reminiscences gradually fill in the rough sketches of their lives that are first presented.  Both were shaped by demanding fathers and have difficult relationships with their sons.  Both have endured tragedies and harbor untold regrets.  Both are now desperate to make things right.

Harold has spent a lifetime keeping people at a polite distance, but his journey brings him into direct and unavoidable contact with countless strangers.  His acquaintances are certainly unique and in some cases downright strange, but by accepting their vagaries, he just might be able to forgive his own shortcomings.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an absolutely charming story that proves to be much deeper and more meaningful than expected, and nature enthusiasts will surely savor Joyce’s lovely descriptions of the English countryside in springtime.

Meanwhile, Douglas is convinced that he has done everything he can to be a good husband and father, but his recollections show that his efforts have often had the opposite effect.  He struggles to understand how his family – and their Grand Tour – could have gone so far off course and wonders if he can rescue either one.  Us is full of razor-sharp wit and clever observations, but ultimately contains more heart and sincerity than first seemed possible.  Art and travel lovers will certainly appreciate Nicholls’ masterful showcase of the great museums of Europe.

Neither Harold nor Douglas is quite the same at the end of his journey as he was at the beginning.  I hope that readers feel similarly affected when they finish these two tales of dauntless dads.  Happy Father’s Day!


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