“If we’re doing we’re living and if we’re living we’re winning, right?”
In Etta and Otto and Russell and James, author Emma Hooper takes us back and forth in time, feeding us tidbits of information that allow us to connect the dots in our own imagination.
The book reads like a waltz, weaving in stories of war and lives left behind and decisions and flashbacks, all moving the novel forward with such ease and definitive interjection. Like laying a brick, piece by piece, Emma Hooper threads in tales of soldiers at war, their lives resembling pawns on a chess board, being moved around by those in power with a calculated and detached precision. At one point in the book, the protagonist Etta speaks about her observations and what she imagines is happening in that moment of time. She describes the “boys” at war, and those who come to fill the places of the ones lost, and mentions with a terse morbidity that they “will fill their places exactly and be shot through or stabbed in the dark or blown up exactly like the last ones, exactly the same, and then more new ones, again and again.”
But the basis of the novel is a woman in her early 80s who’s woken on one morning and decides to take a journey on foot to see the ocean. With a few provisions in her bag along with a map and a rifle, she sets off on foot from her farm in Saskatchewan. The problem is that she does not always remember who she is. So she keeps a folded paper in her coat pocket that she can use to get her memory back. On it is her name, age, where she’s come from and the names of other significant people in her life such as her husband Otto and their friend Russell.
Otto has never lived on his own, and Etta, being a good wife that she is, does not leave him completely helpless. She must do what she must do, and Otto seems to understand that she’s doing this. It’s as if they have talked about this before, and now it’s time. Etta leaves Otto detailed recipe instructions.
With a softness of words and scenarios juxtaposed with the harshness of the brutal reality of war, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, enlightens on the hardship of the times, without making it raw. There is a lightness of the way Emma Hooper presents everything, with a hint of something bigger in the background. At one point early on in Otto’s life, he was dropped off as a recruit in a small stone village, a few miles from where he’d left his regiment, and he comments that as recruits they seem to have no idea whether they were losing or winning. Isn’t that the reality of war! The people are innocent pawns in a political agenda.
“Etta walked herself back to the factor, pulling her hair up under its scarf as she went. You wait and you work, she whispered to herself, you wait, and you work. Her stomach turned backflips, stitched, kicked.”
The letters between Etta and Otto are at times touching, at times insightful and other times, just seem to be a distraction moving story forward.
Dear Etta, We have good days and bad days. You told me, once, to just remember to breathe. As long as you can do that, you’re doing something Good, you said. Getting rid of the old and letting in the new. And, therefore moving forward. Making progress. That’s all you have to do to move forward, sometimes, you said, just breathe. So don’t worry, Etta, if nothing else, I am still breathing.
You must be almost there, must be close. I hope you are. I hope you’re seeing everything.
I am just writing to tell you: I am here, don’t worry. I am here, breathing, waiting.”
Etta and Otto and Russell and James are the trappings of a fable. Sometimes one’s actions in a “normal” life do not necessarily translate to what they may do in a “fabled” one. The characters aren’t given the opportunity to develop (or rather be explained) as I personally would have liked them to be. As well, I would have liked to have more of the relationships explored. For example, we know Russell is a beloved old friend, but is there a hint of something more?
Other acquaintances who have read the book have commented on a confusion of sorts. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is not a book to be read on a whim. Only towards the very end did I sense an uncertainty around the journey which threw me off course. Was this the fable aspect that somehow my logical mind could not grasp? Perhaps, but if you read this book, please do drop by again and let me know what you think.
I’ve read a lot of books about journeys and dementia in the past year, including The Love Song Of Queenie Hennessey and The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki by Haruki Murakami, A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Perhaps unfairly my mind wanders to compare and contrast.