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Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

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. 

Otto,

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.

Yours (always)

Etta. (1)

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

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 writing

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

Photo credit: Trevor Pritchard on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

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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What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

218 St Harper

In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

218 obama2-large

The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?

 

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