Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Emma Hooper, Simon & Schuster, 2015
The letter began, in blue ink,
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.
Who doesn’t understand the need to see water? Especially when the letter writer lives on a farm in Saskatchewan. Next, the reader learns it’s the Atlantic, not the Pacific, she’s heading toward. Yes, of course, water, the reader says, but why not the Pacific? Then one notices, “I will try to remember to come back.”
On her walk, Etta carries a piece of paper in her pocket, which she made for the trip. It’s essentially a short outline of who we humans are – a composite of lives which have touched us.
Etta Gloria Kinnick. Of Deerdale farm. 83 years old in August.
Marta Gloria Kinnick. Mother. Housewife. (Deceased)
Raymond Peter Kinnick. Father. Editor. (Deceased.)
Alma Gabrielle Kinnick. Sister. Nun. (Deceased)
James Peter Kinnick. Nephew. Child. (never lived)
Otto Vogel. Husband. Soldier/Farmer. (Living)
Russell Palmer. Friend. /Farmer/Explorer. (Living).
What happens when one of three people who have been together in what one imagines has been a companionable and loved routine decides, literally, to walk off? The question of what sustains each person without others is a dilemma all of us must face sooner or later, whether the question arrives due to death, dementia, divorce or separation.
This tender, unsentimental, restrained yet generous, story describes the beginnings and ends of the long lives of Etta and Otto. Starting in the 1930s, it continues through Otto’s experience on the World War II front and Etta’s teaching in a one room schoolhouse. The book skips over the middle of their childless life together so that nonessential events don’t clutter the forward movement of the story. This gives the book, despite its 305 pages, a feeling of liveliness and brevity as it walks us, literally, to the end with well-chosen specific details that stick in the mind: Kids alternate school attendance with siblings – on absent days, they do chores; what happens when you teach in the debilitating prairie wind and leave the door open for light and air; how it goes if a girl gets pregnant (see above list) or someone is gay. All these details are interwoven so well that the reader doesn’t notice what’s been absorbed as she follows Etta across Canada toward Prince Edward Island. (For many Americans, it will be a pleasurable chance to bone up on Canadian geography, about which most of us know little.)
As the journey approaches New Brunswick, it both frays and meshes. Chapters and pages become shorter, perhaps a reflection of how the last years present themselves to us, as Etta, Otto, Russell and James amble, hobble or swim toward the end of their lives.
The exterior lives of these three people, four if you include James, seem to have been ordinary and uneventful, but, in Hooper’s hands, the interior lives are anything but as she makes the internal external. She introduces surreal elements in describing Etta’s confused mind: when Etta starts to have Otto’s dreams, she tries not to brush against him in her sleep to keep herself separate. Another surreal touch is James, the companionable coyote who joins Etta for the trek. The device of a talking coyote in no way interferes with or hinders one’s faith in the veracity of Etta’s story, a woman trying to find herself just as she’s losing herself. In Hooper’s hands, this situation is difficult, perhaps sad, but not pitiful. It’s a welcome change in portrayals of aging. The author has given Etta, an 83 year-old woman with beginning dementia, a pass to do what she wants, no matter how dangerous or ridiculous. And Etta’s husband Otto is a stand-in for the author in that he lets her go. Hooper seems to imply that to satisfy a dream at the end of life may mean leaving others behind.
In Etta’s determination, she’s like Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon, also given permission by her author to live the unconventional old age she wants. These two authors have written books unlike what is promulgated as best for old people, and they are as refreshing as a breath of ocean air.
In the middle of reading the book, I went away for a week without it and counted the days to rejoining Etta and Otto, etc. It felt a little as if these confused, searching octogenarians were going to keep walking, pass my house while I was away and leave me behind.