Etta And Otto And Russell And James by Emma Hooper
Etta is 82 and has never seen the sea, so one morning she leaves her farm home in Canada’s rural Saskatchewan and starts walking. With little more than a rifle, some chocolate and the skull of a fish in her possession, she walks 2,000 across the country, becoming a celebrity on the way.
She leaves behind her husband Otto, who respects her wish for freedom, and their neighbour Russell, who doesn’t. Interspersed with the narrative of Etta’s journey, is the tale of how Etta and Otto met, when she became his teacher at the local school, and fell in love. He had then signed up to fight in a war and wrote letters to Etta from across the ocean, so he could improve his spelling. But soon, they both came to treasure these snatched epistles, which are dotted throughout the book.
Russell, who has an injured leg and couldn’t fight, has always loved Etta and tries to find her on her travels, soon discovering he too can have adventures beyond their small community. Otto waits and waits for Etta to come home and makes a menagerie of papier mache animals to while away the lonely hours.
Emma Hooper, a musician and lecturer at Bath Spa University, brings her natural affinity for rhythm and lyrics to this enchanting debut novel - snapshots of each of the characters are presented like short prose poems and it feels as though each word has fought to earn its space in the tightly woven narrative.
Etta has trouble remembering who she is and her present soon blends into Otto’s past. She befriends a coyote she names James, who walks with her for most of the way and talks to her, reminding her who she is, but when he disappears, he’s replaced by a caring female reporter. Hooper uses these as unnecessary props to enable Etta to converse on her journey - and find help - but this is a minor irritation in an otherwise richly evocative tale of love, loss and longing, which is also a Valentine to the power of letters.