Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper

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Dust, water, fish, deer. In the open arms of the wild earth, the elements and God’s creatures move together in a rural dance. Gophers are sacrificed so the land can better support. A daughter will always ‘know where to punch a calf to kill it, if it needs it. And hard enough.’ Prairie Canada seems the same but so very different to the rural experience everywhere else. The same: life and death are but a waltz apart. Different: there is dust, geographic specificity and the Canadian voice – ‘Doesn’t look like Russell’s back yet, hey?’

Although the uniquely Canadian aspects appeal, it is the universal that really draws us in to Hooper’s story. Etta and Otto are both at the curtain-call end of their lives – their life – together. More than 60 years of prairie living have passed in what one assumes is contented and compatible companionship. Except Russell lives next door, and Russell has also been a part of their lives for more than that 60 years of prairie living. The subtlety of their shared story resonates beyond the pages. The tale of Etta and Otto and Russell is centred by two locations; where they meet and when they part. The setting is importantly both of these things – time and place. The reader moves between historical wartime and present day as crucial decisions made almost by accident are relayed and related. ‘Russell waltzed instead of walked’ because of an accident on Otto’s family farm – even here at the start, Otto and Russell’s stories are intertwined.

As is Etta’s. Young Etta is a teacher. She has suffered the loss of her dear sister Alma and turns to teachers’ college, perhaps to stay near to her vulnerable parents. Otto is one of 15 Vogel children, attending the school at which Etta is teaching. When Otto signs up for active duty during wartime, Etta becomes his pen pal. Slowly and with absolute grace, these letters lead to love. Russell, because he ‘waltzes’, is left behind. Such is to be the story of his life.

Letters are present in older age, too. Otto writes to Etta, knowing they may not get to her. He signs these ‘Here, Otto’; a reminder of place and belonging. She has left; ‘I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there’, she writes. But she is ‘Yours (always), Etta.’ Her memory is failing – dementia? Alzheimers? Perhaps just aging, so she carries a piece of paper that reminds her of self, family and others. There is a satisfying symmetry of action here; at the beginning of their story, he leaves her, and at the end, it is Etta’s turn for adventure. Otto remains and channels his grief through cooking Etta’s recipes, and creating papier-mâché creatures that bring him state-wide fame.

Fish are an important trope throughout. Not only because they live in the water Etta is yearning, but also because they provide a tenuous link to her lost sister. ‘They can come back alive when they touch your skin,’ says Alma of fish skulls. Etta wonders if ‘being against the skin of her fingers’ is enough to ‘wake them up, to make them talk.’ Later, as she consumes fish to survive, they whisper Il faut manger – it is necessary to eat. Sacrifice is necessary. ‘One small fish skull’ is one of very few precious belongings that Etta takes on her journey – a reminder that grief may settle but never really leaves.

Russell’s grief is the most heartbreaking. He loves Etta timelessly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was wonderful?’ he asks of Otto after his first day at school with his new teacher, a young Etta. She falls into his arms but once, when Otto is at war and all seems lost, except dancing. And so they do. As an old man, he is their neighbour, and yet can never share what Otto and Etta have. When Etta leaves to walk 2000 kilometres to the sea, he is frustrated and chases her. Otto wisely realises ‘it’s not what she wants, Russell,’ conveying an intuitive understanding that only one who shares intimacy with a person over decades can.

The magic realist elements in this text are harmoniously woven throughout the story. James is a coyote companion gifted words, although it would seem named, in another nod to the power of grief and memory, after Alma’s stillborn son. He is perhaps there to be looked after, as well as look after, Etta on her journey – a surrogate son or nephew. For Etta and Otto never have children, and little is said about this throughout.

The many evocations of grief and memory sting the reader, too. I felt for Russell, who spends his life pining after what he doesn’t have. He, Etta and Otto are at the end of their lives, and so there is a natural inclination to feel a certain sadness when reading. The book evokes a wistful and nostalgic air reminiscent of good poetry or music, and left me thinking for a long time about the exquisite pain and the exquisite beauty that is to be found in the irretractable rhythm of our lives as we simply and plainly just go about living them.

Reviewed by Lara Liesbeth

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
by Emma Hooper
Published by Fig Tree
ISBN 9780241185865

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