I suspect that most every review anyone sees of Emma Hooper’s debut novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James will begin with (or include somewhere early on) the opening words of the book’s first chapter, Etta’s letter to her husband. And because the letter so perfectly sets the tone for the novel, I am going to do the same:
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.
What grabbed my attention in that little letter was Etta’s promise to her husband that she “will try to remember to come back.” Why in the world would she feel it necessary to say something like that? Well, as it turns out, Etta is eighty-three and she is exhibiting clear signs of Alzheimer’s – and the water she is walking toward is some 3,200 kilometers (almost 2,000 miles) away from her little farmhouse. A whole lot can – and will – happen to her before she takes those final steps.
Etta walks away from the memories of a lifetime carrying little more than a day’s worth of food, some clothing, and the loaded rifle she carries on her back. She leaves early one morning so that Otto will not have to see her walking away from him, but as she crosses into the neighboring field, she encounters her old friend Russell and stops to say hello before restarting her long walk. Little can she imagine what an adventure her trek across Canada will be. Along the way, Etta will team up with James, the perfect partner for her walk, and perhaps the most memorable character in the entire novel; she will become somewhat of a folk hero to her fellow Canadians; and she will experience the last great adventure of a lifetime well lived.
Hooper alternates flashbacks with the present day to fill in all the gaps in the reader’s knowledge about the lifetimes of Etta, Otto, and Russell and vividly recreates the world that made the three eighty-something-year-olds into the people they are today. She explores their evolving relationships with each other, with their families, and with their larger farming community and, in the process, makes them and their pasts seem very real.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a remarkable and touching debut that deserves some attention. Hopefully, it will get that attention – and it certainly will, if James has anything to say about it.
(scheduled for publication on January 20, 2015)