January 13, 2016
Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
2015 Simon & Schuster
Finished on June 23, 2015
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good!)
"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."
Eighty-three-year-old Etta has never seen the ocean. So early one morning she takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots and begins walking the 3,232 kilometers from rural Saskatchewan, Canada eastward to the sea. As Etta walks further toward the crashing waves, the lines among memory, illusion, and reality blur.
Otto wakes to a note left on the kitchen table. “I will try to remember to come back,” Etta writes to her husband. Otto has seen the ocean, having crossed the Atlantic years ago to fight in a far-away war. He understands. But with Etta gone, the memories come crowding in and Otto struggles to keep them at bay. Meanwhile, their neighbor Russell has spent his whole life trying to keep up with Otto and loving Etta from afar. Russell insists on finding Etta, wherever she’s gone. Leaving his own farm will be the first act of defiance in his life.
Moving from the hot and dry present of a quiet Canadian farm to a dusty, burnt past of hunger, war, and passion, from trying to remember to trying to forget, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is an astounding literary debut “of deep longing, for reinvention and self-discovery, as well as for the past and for love and for the boundless unknown” (San Francisco Chronicle). “In this haunting debut, set in a starkly beautiful landscape, Hooper delineates the stories of Etta and the men she loved (Otto and Russell) as they intertwine through youth and wartime and into old age. It’s a lovely book you’ll want to linger over” (People)
Don't you just love it when you discover (or a co-worker helps you discover) one of those "under-the-radar" books and it turns out to be one of your favorites for the year? This is what happened when I picked up Emma Hooper's debut novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James. Lately, I've found myself drawn to books about older characters, and not knowing a whole lot about Saskatchewan (in spite of being Canadian), and falling in love with the quirky cover art with the postmark and the hiker and dog, this novel appealed to me before even cracking the spine.
Told in alternating points-of-view and spanning the years from WWI to the late 20th century, this page-turner deserves attention. Part fantasy, part poetry, and part historical fiction, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a beautiful tale about love and memory. A very enjoyable debut, which begs to be discussed with friends. I look forward to more by Emma Hooper!