Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, Emma Hooper (2015)

April 7th, 2015 12:11 pm by Kelly Garbato

“…there are reasons to come home.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program.)

He didn’t ask, where are you going, or why are you going. He turned back around to face where the deer might be. She walked on, east. In her bag, pockets, and hands were:

Four pairs of underwear.
One warm sweater.
Some money.
Some paper, mostly blank, but one page with addresses on it and one page with names.
One pencil and one pen.
Four pairs of socks.
Stamps.
Cookies.
A small loaf of bread.
Six apples.
Ten carrots.
Some chocolate.
Some water.
A map, in a plastic bag.
Otto’s rifle, with bullets.
One small fish skull.

One morning, Etta Gloria Kinnick (“of Deerdale farm. 83 years old in August.”) wakes early, before sunrise, well ahead of her husband Otto (“Vogel. Soldier/Farmer.”), and decides that she wants to see the ocean. Specifically, the Atlantic. Born and raised in land-locked Saskatchewan, she’s never dipped so much as a toe in such a vast body of water; let alone the Atlantic, which has nevertheless managed to play a major role in shaping the course of Etta’s life from afar.

When her older sister Alma became pregnant – back in the “good old days,” when unwed mothers were to be shamed and pitied – she fled to a convent on Prince Alberta Island, in order to have the baby in secret and put him up for adoption. Etta never saw her again.

During Alma’s brief stint as a nun, she witnessed a wave of young men – boys, mostly – depart Canada’s shore, swarm over the island, and drift out to sea. Out to war, many of them never to return; the rest, finally coming home bloodied and broken. Among them was 17-year-old Otto – Etta’s former pupil and eventual husband. When he left, she promised to write to him – so he could practice his underdeveloped English skills. They fell in love from opposite sides of the globe.

And so Etta travels east, embarking on one last adventure before she loses herself completely. Etta, you see, is in the early stages of dementia; oftentimes in her hallucinations, she becomes Otto, circa 1944. Otto as he watches his friends die, one after another, only to see them replaced by other, even younger boy soldiers. Otto during the Invasion of Normandy (I think?), which continues to haunt him to this day.

Etta walks and walks, climbs and detours, walks and rests, and walks some more. She walks to reconnect with her long-lost sister, and to retrace Otto’s steps, the impressions still evident on their souls some half a century later. At her side is a talking coyote named James.

Water. Fish heads. Flax flowers. Coyotes. Deers. The weapons and spoils of war. Letters, both new and faded. The hopes and dreams and regrets of everyone she passes. These are the things that Etta carries.

Come to think of it, Etta’s journey was probably longer in the making than her impromptu preparations would have us believe.

Otto lets his beloved wife go, because he knows that this is something that she must do. Russell – an “adopted” Vogel who has loved Etta from afar for some sixty-five years – worries for her safety and sets about tracking her. Both men, inspired by Etta’s tenacity, embark upon their own adventures by story’s end.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a beautiful tale about grief and loss and hope and love. About growing old – with the one you love, or before your time. Never giving up, even if persevering just means taking one breath at a time. The ties that bind us – to people, places, and things. The ties that sometimes threaten to choke us.

Emma Hooper’s writing is simply lovely – poetic and musical, which seems fitting, since her other job is as a musician. (She performs solo as Waitress for the Bees.) Her first novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is wonderfully weird and quirky – magical, even. I’m not quite sure I understand it all, but that surreal kind of mystery is a large part of the draw for me. I’m not 100% sure what I just read, which is the best reason for a re-read – don’t you think?

The story also includes a number of recurring elements – easter eggs, in a sense – some of which only become readily apparent as you reach the end of the book.

I found myself falling fast in love with Etta and Otto – and even Russell, who I fully expected to dislike. Oddly enough, James wasn’t even my favorite of the bunch! (I’m the type of person who gravitates toward dogs and cats at parties. Or pretty much any social situation, ever.) My heart ached for each of them in turn, even as the love triangle demanded a loser. (Or does it?)

4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary. This book will shred your heart into pieces and then reconstruct them in ways you never thought possible.

I have made you some things, for when you get back. I understand now, all the baking you sent me, stale and crumbled in brown paper and rough twine. Now you’re away and I am here. So I will make and make until you get back to remind you, and myself: there are reasons to come home.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Etta, Otto, and Russell are all in their early 80s. 83-year-old Etta – who wakes up early one morning and decides that she wants to walk 3,200 kilometers to the Atlantic, which she’s never before seen – is in the early stages of dementia. Russell is disabled – he has a “dead leg” from a childhood tractor accident – but that doesn’t stop him from following the caribou north, or dancing with Etta, night after night, during the height of WWII. Otto still suffers from PTSD, more than half a century after fighting in WWII (and, in one of the more surreal plot lines, Etta vicariously experiences Otto’s trauma as well – “catching” his memories as they sleep, for example).

 

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