‘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.’”
And with that stark opening, a journey begins not only for Etta and Otto, but also for the reader lucky enough to take a chance on Emma Hooper’s brilliantly written first novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James. The story moves from past to present flawlessly using three different points of view and alternating narrative timelines. It is a fine blend of magical realism and folklore.
Emma Hooper is both a musician and writer living in the United Kingdom, but she calls Alberta, Canada home. She has said the characters of Etta and Otto are loosely based on her grandparents.
With the note written and left on the kitchen table for her husband Otto to find, 83-year-old Etta leaves their farmhouse in Saskatchewan and travels by foot across Canada, heading east, a distance of 3,239 kilometers, to see the ocean. Inside her pocket is another note — a note to herself — a list of names, family members past and present, and at the bottom is her own name, so she could remember when needed.
The story quickly shifts to earlier days, to the very beginning. Otto Vogel and his fourteen siblings tend the farm and go to school. Russell Palmer lives across from the Vogel farm with his aunt and uncle. He and Otto form a bond of friendship and take turns going to school because of its size — one day, Otto, the next day Russell.
Etta Kinnick is the new teacher. She is young, smart and caring for her students, but she begins to see the boys depart one by one as World War II arrives. She is only a few years older than Otto and agrees to write him after he enlists and is shipped overseas.
It is in this correspondence that these two lives, over time, embrace each other, and the two eventually fall in love and marry. Their letters are what propels the story forward in both time and place by revealing separate experiences while maintaining a tether to each other. Etta’s days are spent working in an ammunitions factory after the school is closed, all the time waiting for news of when Otto will come home. Otto spends his days marching, sleeping, and always waiting for a letter from Etta telling him she will be there when he returns.
Russell does not follow the other boys as they go off to war because of a leg injury sustained when he was young. He stays and eventually buys a farm. He is there and so is Etta, waiting for Otto to come home. The two pass the time quietly together in a regimen of dances and reserved conversation. Love blossoms between them but is interrupted when a letter in a faded green envelope arrives. Otto is coming home. It is this distant love carried by Russell through the years afterwards that sparks in him the need to go and search for Etta after Otto tells him she has left on a walk to see the ocean.
And then there is James. As the book preface highlights, James is a character that should be discovered by the reader without any preemptive commentary. He undoubtedly will be perceived differently by anyone who opens the book, and it is there, for me, when I find James, that I find the magical essence of the book.
While on her walk across the Canadian landscape, Etta begins to become a news story, and eventually her arrival to the towns along her way is highly anticipated. Crowds of people cheer. Russell is in pursuit, and Otto is home tending the farm and living life one day at a time waiting for Etta’s return. He battles demons of old age and memories of the war by putting his time to use. He begins to inhabit what was once Etta’s place by following instructions she conveniently left on notecards, such as recipes and daily rituals of her own life. He finds instructions on how to make papier-mâché at the same time he sees Etta’s fame in the newspapers. He diverts his unease and sadness by creating papier-mâché sculptures, at which he excels, and over time he develops his own fan base.
In the end, this is a luminous and beautiful story about two people, Etta and Otto, both searching for something in their lives. One is looking to see the waters of her dreams before her memory fades from existence, and the other is looking to keep the waters of war at bay just a little bit longer. Water will eventually unite these two with an ending that surprises and, in my opinion, is one of the most creative I have come across. It is a book that caught my attention with its title, mesmerized me with its creative approach and amazed me with an ending that continues to linger in my thoughts.
Simon and Schuster, 2015 Softcover, $15.99