Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Netgalley)
by Emma Hooper
Simon and Schuster
Emma Hooper’s debut novel begins with a note we all hope never to read: “I’ve left.” Except Etta has left, she says, because she’s never seen the water—and so, at eighty-three, she begins her three thousand kilometer trek across Canada, east to the ocean. She has a few essentials– underwear, carrots, a sweater, socks, stamps—and she’s armed with an old rusty rifle. This is her time.
Husband Otto doesn’t chase after her. He writes letters and stacks them by the breadbox for her to read upon her return. Learns to bake. Weeds the garden. Feeds the guinea pig. And waits. Russell, from one farm over, is frantic, packs up his truck and follows. “It’s not what she wants, Russell,” whispers Otto as the pickup backs onto the road. The three have been together for nearly seventy years—neighbors, school pals, lovers; through war, drought, illness, and injury. It’s been Otto and Russell, and Etta and Otto, and Etta and Russell.
They say journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and Etta’s first step came weeks before she left. She steals out of bed late one night, found by Otto in the kitchen. But when he calls her name, she’s puzzled. Blank. “Etta?” she replies and “looks at her husband like a ghost, like a mirror.” Etta is forgetting herself.
So Etta wades in streams, sleeps under the pines, walks and walks. Across Saskatchewan.Through Manitoba. All the time accompanied by a companion who woke her by licking her feet early one morning—the coyote, James. They sing together (do you know coyotes sound like an oboe?), discuss their route, share food, and occasionally argue. Etta is interviewed, photographed, and before too long she is a celebrity of sorts, greeted by crowds on the outskirts of towns and cheered on. Or is she?
Because by the last few chapters of the novel, Hooper’s prose moves towards magical and elegiac. I didn’t even bother wondering if Etta’s adventures, (and James, of course), were real or not because it simply didn’t matter. What mattered was the river of time in which I floated, carried along with Etta in flood of moments and memories.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James left me remembering two other favorite novels that address the harsh reality of loss and growing old: The Widow’s Adventures by Charles Dickinson (sadly, now out of print) and To Dance With the White Dog by Terry Kay. So many of us are squeamish about aging, about our bodies and minds failing us. And maybe you don’t want to read about it, for goshsakes. But do. Especially Etta and Otto and Russell and James.