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The Camino Letters

By John Montgomery, 12/2011,

The Camino Letters: 26 Tasks on the Way to Finisterre
By Julie Kirkpatrick
(Pyxis Press) $28.95

The Camino Letters: 26 Tasks on the Way to Finisterre chronicles the ruminations of Julie Kirkpatrick as she walked about 600 of the 800 kilometres on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage path across northern Spain. Kirkpatrick, a lawyer from Millbrook, Ont., decided to walk El Camino “on a whim” at age 40. She went not as a pilgrim but as a way of creating some space in her life.The author asked 26 friends to each give her a task to carry out during the 26 days she would be en route. Tasks included “keep your mind active,” “immerse yourself in a litany of self-love,” “examine why and how you fail to identify those who hurt you” and “look up.” The content of the book is the 26 letters she writes back to her friends during her journey.A lot of “free floating” thought ensues. Kirkpatrick writes well and with an honesty and candour that is at times a bit overwhelming. She describes in great detail her battle with her menstrual cycle and relays the frequency of her pee stops. Her enormous energy flies off the pages as she reflects upon her personal and professional life, past and present.

In one of the 11 books I have read on the Camino, it is said that you don’t walk the Camino; the Camino walks you. I am not sure this applies to Kirkpatrick; the book doesn’t tell us much about El Camino or its role in “walking her.” The author is “walked” by her “taskmasters” and their tasks. This gives the book both its uniqueness and its weakness as a travel book.

For one who has not walked the Camino, certain details will be baffling — why do people, including the author, leave stones at the Cruz de Ferro? We aren’t told. There is little sense of physical movement or geographical perspective, an odd omission for a book categorized as “travel” — until one remembers that this book is about Kirkpatrick and her inner journey.

Of course, the inner journey is often an integral and important part of one’s Camino experience. But for the reader who wants to learn something about the outer journey as well, books like Joyce Rupp’s Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino or Jane Christmas’s humorous but insightful What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela are better choices.

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