Ettta and Otto and Russell and James

By Emma Hooper

(Simon & Schuster, $26, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Emma Hooper grew up in Canada, but moved to England, where she studied music and literature, earning a doctorate in Musico-Literary studies at the University of East-Anglia. She now lectures at Bath Spa University and performs solo as the musician Waitress for the Bees as well as playing with English bands. And while she has never walked across Canada, she does go back to cross-country ski from time to time. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is her debut novel.

What is this book about?

This is a kind of contemporary fairy tale, with a questing hero, a faithful companion and stories of lost and enduring love. What’s different is that the heroine, Etta, is 83 years old and her quest is to see the ocean, which requires her to walk across Canada from Saskatchewan in the west to the east coast. Her loyal accompanying friend is James, a coyote with whom Etta has long and revealing conversations, and her loves are her husband, Otto, and his almost-brother Russell, who was Etta’s lover many years ago. As Etta makes her thousand-mile journey, with a shotgun and a few provisions, she acquires the attention of a reporter and many fans. Back home, Otto cooks from the recipes Etta has left him and makes papier-mache animals. Russell sets out to find Etta, but he learns that each has a solo journey to complete. And James? He speaks for himself, which is miracle enough.

Why you’ll like it:

Whimsical without being silly, otherworldly without being fey, this is a touching love story that spans most of the 20th century and is  enriched, rather than burdened, by its magical realism. The narrative draws on letters exchanged by Etta and Otto when he was fighting in World War II as it chronicles the long relationship between them, with its ups and downs. Both poignant and poetic, this is one of the most unusual books of the year.

What others are saying:

Kirkus says, in a starred review: “Hooper’s debut is a novel of memory and longing and desires too long denied. On Saskatchewan’s Great Plains grew 15 Vogel children. When Otto Vogel was still a child, half-orphaned Russell joined the brood. The Great Depression burned on, crops failed, and schooling was casual. One of the teachers was Etta, no older than Otto and Russell. World War II came. Otto left. Russell, broken leg improperly mended, could not. As Hooper’s shifting narrative opens, now-83-year-old Etta awakens, intending to walk to Canada’s east coast, leaving a brief note for her husband, Otto. She carries a bit of food, a rifle, and a note of her identity and home. To a Cormac McCarthy-like narrative—sans quotation marks, featuring crisp, concise conversations—Hooper adds magical realism: Etta’s joined by a talking coyote she names James, who serves as guide and sounding board. With Etta absent, Otto begins baking from her recipes, his companion a guinea pig, always silent. Soon Otto becomes obsessed with constructing a menagerie of papier-mâché wildlife. Russell, shy lifelong bachelor and Etta’s wartime lover, follows her, finds her, only to hear her urge him to seek his own quest “because you want to and you’re allowed to and you can. You could have if you wanted to enough”—the novel’s thematic heart. Russell disappears into flashbacks. Hooper reveals more of Etta and Otto in letters exchanged during World War II, where Otto by turns is terrified, sickened and enthralled. Otto marries Etta on return, a less than perfect union shadowed by damaged Otto striking out at Etta. With beautifully crafted descriptions—derelict farm machinery as “gently stagnant machines”—Hooper immerses herself in characters, each shaped by the Depression. The book ends with sheer poetry, stunning and powerful, multiple short chapters where identities and dreams, longings and memories shift and cling to one character and then another within the “long loop of existence.” A masterful near homage to Pilgrim’s Progress: souls redeemed through struggle.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Eighty-three-year-old Etta embarks on a 3,200-kilometer journey walking from Saskatchewan to Halifax in order to see the ocean for the first time. Along the way, she befriends a talking coyote named James, a reporter who decides she’d rather walk with Etta than report, and throngs of fans who follow her progress from town to town. Her husband, Otto, passes the time until her return by writing Etta letters he never mails, learning to bake from her ancient recipe cards, and creating papier-mâché animal sculptures. Russell, who lives on the neighboring farm, goes after Etta, and, in the process, decides that it’s time to begin his own journey. Each character carries heavy memories: tragic pregnancies, the horrors of World War II, a broken heart, an injured limb. And over all, the dust of drought settles, the lack of water a constant pall, the search for water a means of redemption. VERDICT Debut novelist Hooper’s spare, evocative prose dips in and out of reality and travels between past and present creating what Etta tells Otto is “just a long loop.” This is a quietly powerful story whose dreamlike quality lingers long after the last page is turned. For literary fiction fans.“

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Hooper’s arresting debut novel, with its spare, evocative prose, seamlessly interweaves accounts of the present-day lives of its eponymous main characters with the stories of their pasts and how they first connected with each other. The book starts with a note that Etta leaves for her husband: “Otto, I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.” Thus begins elderly Etta’s journey from Saskatchewan to the coast, and the same ocean that once took her dear husband overseas to fight in WWII. She is armed with minor provisions, some clothes, and a sheet of paper with names on it, starting with “You: Etta Gloria Kinnick of Deerdale farm. 83 years old in August.” Along the way, Etta meets a coyote she names James; she considers him her friend and they have many long conversations as they travel together. As Etta walks thousands of miles to her destination, three touching stories unfold: those of Otto, from a family of 14 brothers and sisters; Russell, the abandoned boy who lived next door to Otto and becomes a de facto part of his family; and Etta, who lost her sister at a young age. Hooper, with great insight, explores the interactions and connections between spouses and friends—the rivalries, the camaraderie, the joys and tragedies—and reveals the extraordinary lengths to which people will go in the name of love.”

“Hooper has conjured a character who is a gift… As the lines blur between Etta’s and Otto’s memories, and even between their physical bodies, readers emerge with a deeper appreciation for life and for its suffering against its backdrop of majesty,” says the Dallas Morning News.

When is it available?

This unusual love story is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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