Etta and Otto and Russell and James
By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9781476755670 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
At 82 years old Etta gets up one morning, packs some supplies, and heads out on a walking trek to fulfill her unfulfilled dream of seeing the sea, thousands of kilometers away from the Saskatchewan home she shares with her husband Otto. As Etta makes her gradual journey step by step, Otto remains at home reminiscing over the past that he has shared with Etta and their neighbor and long-time friend Russell.
Starting off toward her goal solitary, with no fanfare, Etta begins meeting people who have heard of her walk and lend her some support and companionship as she passes through towns. In the empty Canadian wilderness between she becomes joined by James, a talking coyote. Meanwhile the reader discovers through the reflections of Otto’s and Russell’s past that love and passion exists both between Etta and Otto, and between her and Russell. Amid the tides of war and the expectations of society Etta, Otto, and Russell experience difficulties and tenderness alike.
There is a lot to appreciate in this gentle literary novel. The elderly are not frequently featured or explored in novels in any serious way, and in film/TV they are mostly used for jokes. Having protagonists who are elderly – and one who is female and actively doing something amazing that even the young would be hesitant to attempt – is refreshing. The three human characters of the novel, both at their present old age and in the recollections of their younger years are well fleshed out, and really interesting, beautiful.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is also marked by a distinct lack of conflict. Despite the love triangle featured here, there is nothing disastrous that comes about. The hardships, the longing and the guilt over having given into some of these are viewed in the novel through the long stretch of decades that have passed. In their old age the characters have become much more wise, patient, and forgiving to themselves. Having characters that are largely at peace, non-resentful, and appreciative of the life they have gotten to live even with its notes of sourness makes the novel feel similar, slow and optimistically contemplative despite that sadness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires.
It is Etta’s journey in the present – an attempt to satiate one desire that still remains possible – that creates some of the largest tension, in the worry of whether she will be able to make such an arduous journey without her health failing, physically or mentally. The appearance of James, a talking coyote companion injects the ‘magical realism’ into the novel. If merely a construct of Etta’s mind, is it something beneficial akin to a spirit guide, or a sign of danger? The line between real and fantasy blurs more as the novel reaches its conclusion, leaving an ending that can be interpreted in unique ways depending on the reader.
For readers who don’t mind the oddity and openness this novel contains or a lack of action, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a meditative, emotionally complex novel that invites reflection and discussion. Even accepting the type of novel this is, I’m most uncertain how vital James is as a character, but rereading it with everything in mind with the coyote as an aspect of Etta’s mind may reveal more here than a first read was able to pick out. A good length for a book club, the novel would certainly be an ideal consideration for one.
Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.