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The Road to Santiago

Overview

In the spring of 1999, Kathryn Harrison set out to walk the centuries-old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. “Not a vacation,” she calls it, “but a time out of time.” With a heavy pack, no hotel reservations, and little Spanish, she wanted an experience that would be both physically and psychically demanding. No pain, no gain, she thought, and she had some important things to contemplate. But the pilgrim road was spattered with violets and punctuated by medieval churches and alpine views, and, despite the ...
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The Road to Santiago

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Overview

In the spring of 1999, Kathryn Harrison set out to walk the centuries-old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela. “Not a vacation,” she calls it, “but a time out of time.” With a heavy pack, no hotel reservations, and little Spanish, she wanted an experience that would be both physically and psychically demanding. No pain, no gain, she thought, and she had some important things to contemplate. But the pilgrim road was spattered with violets and punctuated by medieval churches and alpine views, and, despite the exhaustion, aching knees, and brutal sun, she was unexpectedly flooded with joy and gratitude for life’s gifts. “Why do I like this road?” she writes. “Why do I love it? What can be the comfort of understanding my footprint as just one among the millions?...While I’m walking I feel myself alive, feel my small life burning brightly.”

Throughout this deeply personal and revealing memoir of her journey, first made alone and later in the company of her daughter, Harrison blends striking images of the route and her fellow pilgrims with reflections on the redemptive power of pilgrimages, mortality, family, the nature of endurance, the past and future, the mystery of friendship.

The Road to Santiago is an exquisitely written, courageous, and irresistible portrait of a personal pilgrimage in search of a broader understanding of life and self.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The author's pilgrimage, along the ancient roads and paths from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France across the top of Spain to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is not a mere literary exercise. Again and again, through several actual journeys, Harrison douses her head with water; rinsing, washing, cleansing herself of ill fortune, bad luck, evil, mythic wolves of every kind. For her, this journey pits spiritual life against death. — Carolyn See
Publishers Weekly
More memoir than travelogue, Harrison's contribution to National Geographic's Directions series is reflective and deeply personal, yet still manages to recreate a physical place in all its rugged, peaceful glory. The titular road is a 400-mile path beginning in France and ending in Santiago, in northwestern Spain. A thousand-year-old pilgrimage route, the road can be walked in segments or in total, and Harrison (Seeking Rapture; The Kiss; etc.) touches upon her three separate trips along the camino. She bravely-some might say illogically-makes her first pilgrimage (in 1992) solo (solita), when she's seven months pregnant. Her second-and perhaps most significant-voyage along the camino comes seven years later, alone again. The third trip, which she makes with her 12-year-old daughter, is the one that begins this book, and kicks off the series of lessons Harrison learns along the way. Traveling with an adolescent, Harrison discovers "the grace to quit." As she walks "toward the invisible, the improbable, the ridiculous," the author discards extra soap and leaking bottles of sunscreen in an effort to lighten her pack (although she refuses to toss the pages of her novel-in-progress, as it defines who she is). She meets other pilgrims and some intriguing locals, continually "putting one foot in front of the other," an act which, on its own, is not dramatic, but "can wreak inner havoc." In rearranging her priorities (e.g., does she have enough water to make it to the next town?) and admitting defeat (which has an oddly relaxing effect), Harrison comes to learn-and indeed, teaches readers-the importance of acceptance. Map not seen by PW. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Harrison, the author of five novels (e.g., Poison) and one best-selling work of nonfiction, now rewards readers with personal perspectives of her experiences in Spain, namely her 400-mile pilgrimage from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the site of a shrine to the Apostle James. Although twice before she had made this pilgrimage solo, she decided to revisit it once more with her 12-year-old daughter, Sarah. In this candid memoir, written in diary format, she shares with readers the day-by-day challenges and joys of their journey while offering a delectable sampling of the history, geography, and environment of the region. She also provides insight into the complexities of mother/daughter relationships and liberally shares her self-analysis and reflection. Although relatively short, this memoir ultimately delivers an amiable portrait of Spain, its culture, the friendliness of its locals, and the many benefits that travel has to offer. [For a review of Harrison's Saint Therese of Lisieux, see p. 122.]-Jo-Anne Mary Benson, Osgoode, Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A pilgrimage along an ancient road, from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the site of a shrine to the Apostle James. Having trekked 283 kilometers of the route three years earlier, novelist Harrison (The Seal Wife, 2002, etc.) returns for a second trip with her 12-year-old daughter. On both journeys, she endures the burden of a heavy pack and temperamental weather, blisters, thirst, and fatigue, finding little relief in spartan meals and accommodations along the way. This account of discomfort, though, is rather matter-of-fact, and the author does little to offset any of it with those transcendent moments that make travel—and travel-writing—engaging and worthwhile. Harrison's capable writing is flattened by her emotional evenness; her meditative detachment, perhaps a spiritual achievement appropriate to the milieu, results in a muted account that lacks passion. Harrison's occasional reflections on mortality, fear, and family outshine her encounters with locals and descriptions of place, but she doesn't contemplate anything too deeply or for too long. When, after days of eating, sleeping, and walking alongside her daughter, it occurs to Harrison that she's almost intimidated by her child: "her beauty and her silences, her ability to wound me." But she doesn't pursue the revelation or use it to lessen the distance between them or to better understand its nature. Also missing is any substantive discussion of Harrison's faith. Her Catholicism is hardly traditional: raised by Jewish grandparents and schooled by Christian Scientists, she converted to Catholicism at 12, married a Quaker, and never baptized her children. On this trek through holyground, she neglects to discuss her enduring faith, its role in her life, or how (and if at all) she intends to pass it on to her children. Lucid, readable prose but, as travelogue, neither transporting nor insightful. (map)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780792237457
  • Publisher: National Geographic Society
  • Publication date: 11/1/2003
  • Series: Directions Series
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 746,388
  • Product dimensions: 5.66 (w) x 8.34 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathryn Harrison is the author of the novels Envy, The Seal Wife, The Binding Chair, Poison, Exposure, and Thicker Than Water. She has also written memoirs, The Kiss and The Mother Knot, a travel memoir, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and a collection of personal essays, Seeking Rapture. Ms. Harrison is a frequent reviewer for The New York Times Book Review; her essays, which have been included in many anthologies, have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Vogue, O Magazine, Salon, and other publications. She lives in New York with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison, and their children.
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