Several lifetimes ago, when I was the mother of three young boys, I understood the concept of escapist reading in the summertime. Grabbing reading moments between afternoon trips to the pool and T-ball games, I required something lightweight and entertaining, easy to read in small bites. And since I wouldn’t remember what I read anyway, mainstream chick lit, good or bad, usually fit the bill.
But out here in the middle distance, my approach to summer reading has changed. Summers now provide time to read in long, lazy sessions, when I can catch up on all that I’ve missed over the previous year. And this summer — the book Gods be praised! — I was delivered two luscious surprises, novels gifted by friends that share some intriguing parallels: both were initially published in another country; both were debut novels penned by women with theatrical backgrounds, one a writer of radio plays for the BBC, the other a renowned Mexican playwright; and both extend their reach into the mystical — earthbound narratives in pursuit of profound spiritual truths.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was published in England in 2012 and became a bestseller in the U.S. soon after. As the title implies, it’s the story of a journey. One ordinary spring day in the south of England, Harold Fry, a quiet, passive, British retiree, receives a letter from a former co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, announcing that she is dying in hospice some 600 miles away. Harold scribbles a perfunctory condolence note to Queenie and heads out to the nearest post office to mail it. But one post office leads to another and Harold soon finds himself walking northward, convinced that if he keeps walking, Queenie will not die. Harold’s pilgrimage extends to 90 days, through towns and villages, past meadows and forests, crossing paths with ordinary and extraordinary folk whose kindnesses keep him going. Ultimately, Harold’s pilgrimage delivers not only an extreme physical toll but an emotional awakening about the suppressed emotional life he has shared for many years with his distant wife, Maureen, and the ways he has shielded himself from communion with the larger world.
Along the way, secrets are gradually revealed about Harold’s unusually keen loyalty to Queenie, about the fate of his estranged son, David, and about his past with Maureen. Both the journey forward and the gracefully placed back story keep us engaged as we watch Harold listen, learn, and atone for his past mistakes, finally understanding his oneness with the bizarre parade of humanity.
Sabina Berman’s Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World, gracefully translated from Spanish to English by Lisa Dillman, tells the story of Karen Nieto, an autistic savant rescued from her feral childhood on the beaches of Mazatlan by her glamorous Aunt Isabelle. When the family’s fortune, built upon a declining tuna cannery, is at stake because of a U.S. embargo fueled by environmentalists’ claims of unnecessary cruelty and dolphin kills, young Karen, who is most at home under the sea swimming among these giant fish, develops a more humane way to catch them.
Karen Nieto neatly parallels real life autistic animal activist Temple Grandin, including a brief stint at the agricultural school in Fort Collins, and some readers might take issue with that. But Berman is a skilled enough writer to know that the details of Karen’s autism as well as Grandin’s serve to illustrate a larger point about how most humans hold themselves separate from and in dominion over the earth’s other animal creatures, at great peril and great cost.
Berman gives us the story of Karen’s rise to international fame and fortune, and her descent to abject failure, in Karen’s first-person voice, reasoned and detached. Like Harold Fry, this heroine is cut off from the world around her, is faced with dangerous physical challenges, and must find her way to a life that unites her with others without sacrificing her true essence.
In her quest for True Blue Tuna Paradise and in his to save his dying friend, we come to understand Karen and Harold as Everywoman and Everyman, subject to exploitation and disappointment, flawed and at risk of being exposed, open to the elements, and ripe for transformation.
Reading these novels in marathon summer sessions, graced by time and age, I was returned to that experience of discovery that a rare few books deliver in a lifetime. Walking with Harold and diving with Karen, I was reminded of all the times that books have transported me to places I’ve never been where I felt fully, mysteriously, finally, at home.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (Random House, 2012)
Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World by Sabina Berman (Henry Holt and Company, 2012)
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.