Title: Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Author: Emma Hooper
Publisher: Penguin Books South Africa
Eighty-three-year-old Etta has never seen the ocean. And so, armed only with her best boots, some basic provisions and a rifle, she sets off from her home in Saskatchewan to undertake the 3 232 km journey to Halifax on foot.
This is the intriguing premise of Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James. Part The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, part Forrest Gump, the account of Etta’s last great adventure goes well beyond the offbeat fortune cookie wisdom so often found in narratives of the “walking trend” variety.
Set mainly against the backdrop of the dusty and unforgiving Saskatchewan farmlands, the novel evokes the tradition of the Canadian prairies novel and sensitively explores themes of poverty, loss and the devastating effect of war on the community. The minutiae of prairie life and the characters’ struggle to carve out an existence in a harsh and isolated environment is handled with some humour.
Add to this a light dusting of magical realism and the result is a thoroughly charming, if somewhat ambitious, debut novel.
Following a trend often noted in the prairie novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James inverts the gendered binary oppositions of house/female and horse/male. Etta, the travelling female, leaves behind not only her husband, Otto, but also long-time admirer, neighbour and all-round good guy Russell (we’ll get to James a bit later).
Strangely paralysed by his increasingly forgetful wife’s sudden desire for a brisk cross-country hike, Otto seems resigned to remaining on their farm in uncertain anticipation of Etta’s return. Here he channels his restless energy into stereotypically female pursuits such as mastering the recipes so thoughtfully written out for him by Etta and creating a menagerie of papier mâché animals.
Russell, on the other hand, demonstrates a whit of good sense by following Etta, who appears to be exhibiting the early symptoms of dementia. However, it is soon clear that Russell has his own journey of self-discovery to make.
The fourth and final titular character to join the cast is James, a talking, often singing, coyote who keeps Etta company on her travels. With the introduction of James, the reader’s already tentative grip on reality (our suspicions having been raised earlier by Otto’s unexplained clairvoyance about Etta’s chosen route and some offhand mention of shared dreams) is firmly destabilised. We are ready to cast off disbelief and troop happily into the murky territory of magical realism. Here be dragons, but are they the figments of a mind ravaged by old age and illness?
The novel’s ethereal quality is further aided by Hooper’s sparse, almost hypnotic prose and her expert blending of past and present. Etta’s present-day expedition is interspersed with glances into the characters’ childhoods, the love triangle that unfolds between them and the trauma they must endure as the horrors of the Second World War begin to intrude on the quiet solitude of their homes.
As Etta’s mind spirals further into confusion, her sense of self is slowly eroded, blurring the boundaries between her own epic journey and the terrifying march into the unknown experienced by Otto as young soldier.
Moving between remembering and forgetting, past and present, the real and the imagined, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a slippery, sometimes challenging novel that does not deal in neatly packaged conclusions.
If you prefer your narratives to move smoothly from A to Z with proper regard for the quotation mark as indicator of direct speech, proceed with caution. If you’re up for something with a little more meat around the bones, this moving and imaginative offering is well worth the effort.
 For a more detailed exploration of this dichotomy, see Ann Barnard’s “A North American Connection: Women in Prairie Novels”.