Etta and Otto Vogel will be 83 in August. They’ve been married for decades. It’s clear to both of them that Etta’s mind is going and Otto’s body won’t last much longer.
Their neighbor Russell is their age, and the three have been close since their late teens, during World War II.
Russell’s leg was crushed in a childhood accident, so he’s walked at the deliberate pace of an old man his entire life. During transport from their native Saskatchewan to France to fight in the war, Otto’s hair turned completely white. From a distance he’s looked like an old man since he was 17.
Etta was never able to carry a pregnancy to term. No medical explanation is offered, but it’s as if, reproductively, she was never in her prime — aged from the get-go.
Never once during Emma Hooper’s debut novel, “Etta and Otto and Russell and James,” was it unclear that Etta and Russell loved each other very deeply. Many times their relationship was more intense and believable than the one between married Etta and Otto.
Etta wanted babies and stability — Otto, from a copious family of 15 children, seemed a more likely candidate for the job than impaired only-child Russell.
Etta herself had only one sister who died trying to give birth to the family’s only heir, who would have been named James had he survived.
After one miscarriage, which Hooper presents with extreme subtlety, Otto says to Etta, “This would not have happened with Russell.”
Etta replied, “But it’s too late now, isn’t it.” One of the book’s questions is: is it ever too late? For love, for adventure, for personal discovery, etc.
Hooper wrote the novel in equal parts flashback and present time. This letter from Etta begins the novel in the present: “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.”
She intends to walk the 2,000 from Saskatchewan to Halifax.
And, while Otto is nervous that his addle-brained, elderly wife has wandered away, albeit with a mission, he doesn’t attempt to stop her.
Russell, on the other hand, held his tongue until he was furious. “We need to go find her. Otto. Otto! She could die out there! She could be dead already! Put your boots on. I’ve brought the truck around. We can make the Manitoba border by morning.”
Otto refused. “It’s not what she wants.”
Otto’s attitude is a little hard to process. What she wants can’t simply be to see the water.
Hooper, a Canadian, is senior lecturer in commercial music at England’s Bath Spa University. Her narrative gives the reader a lot of room to roam and interpret the text — so much so that the space acts as an invitation for the reader to join in the creation of the novel.
When she’s not writing or teaching, Hooper performs as a one-woman band. Perhaps she intends her fiction to be collaborative and her music to be solo.
Hooper leaves clues as to what Etta really wants, if it’s not to see the water.
A common image within the flashbacks, which deal with childhood and the war, is of dust settling over everything; certainly acting as a symbol of the passage of time and death.
The trio met because of the dust. The boys were country students at the time, and she replaced the teacher of the one-room schoolhouse who quit when inhaling the dust off the fields cost him his voice.
Another persistent image, this time in the present, was more rhythmic than visual. In multiple scenes Hooper likened the kneading of bread with soldiers’ footfalls and the relentless pounding of the tide — a persistent, working heartbeat.
Somehow all three characters, with their odd geriatric-like infirmities, have fallen out of regular chronology.
On Etta’s long trek she befriended a coyote and names it James — namesake of the lost nephew. James acted as Etta’s sounding board and may get to the heart of what Etta’s journey is really about.
Once Canadians got wind of her walk, Etta became a media sensation. But the enthusiastic fans slowed her and make her uneasy, so she asked James to stay alert to strangers who might follow them.
The coyote told her that she can never be completely away from the chaos, “but you can be far enough to pretend.”
Hooper reached for universals about aging, personal perception and love, but only an astute and patient reader will make the connections that realize the dream of the project.
To reach Anne Kniggendorf, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper (320 pages; Simon & Schuster; $26)