There is no easy way to capture the essence of Etta and Otto and Russell and James. It is not a typical love story, but it is about relationships and bonds that last a lifetime. It is a pilgrimage story, but it is as much about those left behind as it is about those on the journey. The novel is dreamy, exploring memory, separation, and the mystery of life’s twists and turns.
One morning, 82-year-old Etta Vogel, who is struggling with the beginnings of dementia, leaves her home in Saskatchewan and sets out on foot for the eastern coast of Canada. She wants to see the ocean for the first time, and soon meets a talking coyote names James who accompanies her as she presses onwards. She leaves behind her husband Otto, who is plagued by memories of his own journey east as a young man during World War II. Their neighbour, Russell, starts off after Etta, but eventually ends up going on his own journey.
The novel moves continuously between time and viewpoints, shifting from Etta’s present-day pilgrimage to the coming of age of the characters during the 1930s. Otto, one of 14 children in his family, grew up with Russell, his neighbour and an honourary brother. Etta came to their town in rural Saskatchewan as a school teacher, just as everyone was leaving to fight overseas. When Otto leaves, he and Etta write to each other so she can correct his letters, and their relationship deepens.
Hooper’s depiction of rural Saskatchewan during World War II, a scene of endless dust and abandoned farms, is sharply written. She sets the scene with sparse, powerful writing. At the same time, nothing feels quite real – even in the past. The entire novel is magical realism and requires a suspension of disbelief.
The story explores many themes, one of which is aging and the question of whether it is ever too late for adventure or for forgiveness. It also explores the tension between obligation and desire. Though Etta and Otto and Russell seem to be inextricably linked, even as decades pass, it is easy to see how they could have taken different paths.
Yet for a story about relationships, the characters remain opaque. Because of the shifting of time and the blurring between fantasy and reality, we only see snippets of them. Much of the story is told through letters. While the characters are empathetic, we do not get to fully explore their motivations and relationships, and I found myself wanting to know more and to deepen my understanding.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is beautifully written. The whole thing reads as if it is a dream, and Hooper leaves the reader the space to take what they want from the world she has created. In many ways, the novel is what you make of it.
Have you read Etta and Otto and Russell and James? What were your thoughts about the book? What did you make of it?