Moments of fumbling confusion contrasted with moments of startling clarity. A striking presence.This is how Etta (the Etta in old age) is described by The Canadian National newspaper as she walks across the eastern half of Canada towards the sea. What is this old woman doing?
Etta and Otto and Russell and Jamesis the 37thin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James
The story of this novel is set in two time frames, one before and during the Second World War and the second in the present day. Its centre, as Canada’s, is the prairie province of Saskatchewan. Etta is a young school teacher and Otto and Russell among her pupils. Otto is one of a very large family who live on a farm. Russell comes from the city when he is orphaned to live with his aunt and uncle on a nearby farm. He quickly becomes absorbed in Otto’s family, even when he damages his leg in a farming accident. Otto goes off to war, while Etta and Russell become close and enjoy themselves as dancing partners. When Otto returns after terrible experiences fighting in Europe he and Etta marry.
In the present Etta walks away from Otto (and Russell their neighbour) to go to the sea.
the letter began in blue ink.
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.
As she walks we revisit her history: her love of a sister who died in childbirth, her training as a teacher, her first job, and her growing affection for Otto and Russell. These two exchange places at school so they can take turns to attend and both take advantage of learning. We see the difficulties when the trio, Etta, Otto and Russell are separated. Otto joins the army and is sent to Europe. He and Etta keep up a correspondence.
She travels eastwards and becomes something of a celebrity as she walks. Mostly she is alone, but James a coyote who talks, joins her for the mid-section and Bryony a journalist for the final section. The journey takes many weeks and presents many challenges to the old woman.
Etta in old age, the reader quickly finds, is tough and strong-willed. She is excellent at improvising, and resourceful, contriving to catch fish in a plastic bottle. And she is good with people and coyotes. These are excellent qualities for any person of any age and it is rare and laudable to find an older female character who embodies them.
She is also forgetful and carries a list of people to remember, such as might be given to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s.
There is a gap in their history after Otto’s return and the moment that Etta sets out to visit the sea. What happened in all those years? Does marriage represent the last time anything significant happens?
The book breezes along in very short sections, jumping between the three human characters and time zones. The story is told through a range of media, including lists. There are letters, recipes, internal monologues, newspaper reports and 3rdperson narration. The lists include a packing list, known people list, uses of newspapers list.
There are some magical, fantastical aspects to the plot: the talking coyote; the inter-changeability of Otto and Etta in the final pages; the telepathic communication of the three friends.
What I liked and didn’t like
Some of the story is vivid and other parts charming. The vivid parts included Otto in Europe, life on the prairie in the 1930s, Otto’s father’s illness. And some of the descriptions of the landscape lived in or visited by Etta are beautifully done.
But Etta appears to be described as somewhat eccentric. Older women with spirit often appear that way in novels. Eccentricity is certainly found in older people, older women, but it can be something of a caricature or cliché. This book does not escape the trap. There are several more in the older women in fiction reviews that I have noted.
And the absence of any sense of their lives from the end of the war to now is very frustrating.
But most of all I could not work out why Etta’s walk was important. I kept thinking of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012). Harold set off to post a letter, but carried on across England to deliver it in person.
This novel ends with the separation of all three main characters Etta, Otto and Russell. What supports the blurb claim that this is ‘a tale of love over 50 years’?
Have you read this novel? What did you think?
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper, published in 2015 by Penguin. 278pp
Recent posts in this series:
The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe
Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon
Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood
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