What I Read – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Had this novel not been a selection for a book club I belong to, I may not have purchased it. If I had picked it up by my own volition, I probably wouldn’t have continued reading after the first few chapters. Initially, I found The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry boring and depressing.

Harold is a man in his 60s, settling into retirement after a lackluster career in sales. His wife is a career homemaker and domestic martyr who seems to resent having him around. One morning he receives a letter from an old friend, reaching out to him in her final stages of a terminal illness. Harold responded to her note, but on a whim decided it just wasn’t enough. He then set out on a bizarre journey across England on foot, to make amends with his dying friend.

At first, it reminded me of that movie with Jack Nicholson where he retires, his wife dies suddenly, and he drives around in his RV looking back on his life with bitter regret. This isn’t Harold Fry’s story exactly, but it starts off with that vibe. The novel does pick up some momentum, but then it takes a Forest Gumpy detour before getting back to the sad. It’s a downer, but it’s a pleasant read overall. It wasn’t life altering, but it was thought provoking. Stories like this are always a good reminder about importance of taking responsibility for your actions, nurturing your relationships, and confronting your inner demons before they overcome you – because your past is never as far behind you as you might think.

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What I Read – The Sandcastle Girls

With most novels, I often find myself slogging though the first few chapters. So few books grab my interest right away. Not this time. The Sandcastle Girls really hits the ground running. I was hooked by the end of the first page.

It’s a love story against the backdrop of WWI and the Armenian genocide of 1915, a barbaric event I’m ashamed to admit, even as a scholar of history, I wasn’t even aware happened. I recalled that the Ottoman Turks fought against us in World War I, and they were kind of douchey. I was also familiar with the military disaster for the Australian army at Galliopli, although my knowledge if that campaign came less from school, and more from the movie staring Mel Gibson. Remember circa 1980s Mel Gibson? It’s hard to believe he was once a young, sexy, leading man, instead of an old, wife beating, anti-semitic lunatic? Those were simpler times.

But I digress.

I didn’t know about this gruesome genocide, but as the author points out, it’s not well known at all. Unlike the holocaust, this happened quietly, in the middle of the desert, while the rest of the world was preoccupied with the great war. To add insult to injury, to this day, it’s not even recognized as a genocide by many governments – despite the fact that the term was coined as a result of the atrocity.

This wasn’t an easy book to read. Some of the descriptions of senseless cruelty and human suffering are hard to stomach. I couldn’t put it down though. It was so easy to get lost in this compelling story, while trying to make sense of the evil that lurks within mankind.

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What I’ve Read – The Chaperone

In 1922, Louise Brooks left her home in Wichita, Kansas to study dance in New York City. Since she was only 15 and too young to be travelling alone, her family hired a woman to accompany her on the journey and watch over her in the city. This part of the story is true. This novel is not about Louise Brooks though, as the the title suggests, it is about the chaperone, a purely fictional character named Cora.

With grown children and a preoccupied husband, Cora takes the job of escorting Louise to New York. Although her life was far from conventional, Cora was a product of the Victorian era – clinging to rigid social norms she was raised to obey and respect. This conflicted with Louise’s free spirit and undisciplined upbringing. The pair spend a tense summer together, with Cora trying to keep her charge out of trouble, and Louise trying to assert her freedom.

By the end of the summer, Louise moved forward with her career in show business. Meanwhile, her enlightened chaperone returned to Kansas. The story continued from there, following Cora and her family as they moved though the decades of conflict and change that came with each new generation.

If you’re looking forward to reading a book about Louise Brooks, you might be disappointed. The real life character seemed two dimensional, leaving me to feel like the chaperone could have had her life altering experience in New York City with any bratty, precocious, flapper of that time. The inclusion of the famous actress seemed almost inconsequential. Also, the character of Cora often seemed more like a stereotype of a proper, small town housewife of that period than a real person.

Despite my criticism, I actually really enjoyed this book. The story was fantastic and made up for what was lacking in the characters. Plus, I love fiction based on real events and people – especially from that era, of course.

Now, can someone get working on a fictional story about Sarah Murphy for me? Please and thank you!

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