Fans of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will enjoy this debut novel by Emma Hooper, which follows 83 year-old Etta Vogel’s walk from Saskatchewan across Canada to see the ocean. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a quietly powerful story which is perfect for book clubs.
Etta’s journey integrates many elements of magical realism. She appears to be traveling with a talking coyote named James, and sleeps outdoors with no apparent fear of the elements, running out of food, or simply getting lost. Throngs of fans begin to follow her progress from town to town. Etta is not interested in fame or conversation, just this final act of independence by walking to the ocean. It soon becomes clear that Etta’s memory is sometimes unreliable, and her journey certainly has a dreamlike quality as it seems to weave between reality and fantasy. The husband she left at home, Otto Vogel, undergoes his own transformative journey. Initially lost without his wife’s presence, he finds some comfort learning how to cook using Etta’s recipe cards, and sculpting papier-mâché animals in the yard.
An intriguing addition to the novel is Etta and Otto’s relationship with their friend Russell. Russell was essentially raised as a brother to Otto, they shared the chores and time listening to their beloved and mysterious radio. Russell, a long-time admirer and dancing partner of Etta, discovered that his attraction to Etta might be reciprocated during Otto’s wartime absence. Russell makes his simple, romantic plea:
The thing is, he said, Otto’s not here, and I am. And I will be here tomorrow and the day after and the day after and the day after that. Right here.
Their burgeoning relationship is complicated by news that an injured Otto is returning home. Years later, Etta’s walking journey distresses home-body Russell and causes him such angst that he sets off to find her. Russell undergoes his own personal transformation on this trip, finding freedom that he never expected. I found it quite inspiring that these three main characters all discover that you are never too old to take risks!
The narrative shifts back and forth through time, as the characters remember their childhood years during the Great Depression, how they met, and how they became a couple in the midst of wartime chaos (World War II). I loved the stories from the early years, as Hooper is adept at capturing life on the prairie, inserting situational humour (how Etta secured her teaching position by essentially outrunning her classmates, and tales of Otto’s late-life pet guinea pig) and gently developing the relationship between Otto and Etta. Their relationship blossomed through the wartime letters they exchanged, which Etta proofread to improve Otto’s writing skills:
Dear Miss Kinnick,*
First, thankyou for letting me write to you. I hope it is not too intrusive. I will try to keep it short. Just long enouf to practice all the letters and a fair few words.
The author integrates a variety of writing techniques, including letters, short vignettes, spare and evocative prose, simplistic dialogue (without quotation marks), and a poetic book ending. The end result is a irresistible debut novel which explores the complications of aging, the power of loneliness, the mystery of love, and the destructive and life-changing power of war.