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Etta and Otto and Russell and James

by Emma Hooper

Debut novelist Emma Hooper provides a carefully calibrated setting, but not all the elements in this book come through so vibrantly, writes Dory Cerny

Early one morning, 82-year-old Etta Kinnick puts on her boots, fills her pockets with a few necessary sundries, grabs the rifle from beside the front door and walks out of her Saskatchewan farmhouse. Her husband, Otto, finds a note on the kitchen table, set atop a stack of faded recipe cards. “I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there.”

Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Emma Hooper)Otto briefly considers going after her. He knows instinctively that Etta has gone east, walking the 3,232 kilometres to Halifax. But he knows, also, that this is something Etta must do on her own, and so after a short rudderless period, he finds ways to keep busy: teaching himself to bake from Etta’s recipes, cleaning the oven, and creating a papier-mâché menagerie as a gift for his wife when she returns home.

Stories of pilgrimage are nothing new. Neither are those of memory and loss. It would take a pretty spectacular book to breathe new life into these themes. Alberta-born Emma Hooper’s debut novel, while quirky, pensive, and possessed of a quiet beauty, doesn’t entirely achieve that lofty goal.

Notwithstanding the fourth name in the title, which is bestowed upon various characters in the book (most notably a talking coyote), a love triangle is at the heart of Hooper’s story. As the narrative bounces back and forth across several decades, we are introduced to a series of characters, many of whom remain hazy. This tendency leads to frustration: Otto’s sister Winnie, for instance, deserves far more attention than she receives. Only the central trio feels solid, given shape as much by things left unsaid as by what is made explicit.

The boys meet first. Seven-year-old Otto, middle child in a brood of 15, finds a boy his age sitting in his chair at the kitchen table one day when he comes in for lunch. The boy is Russell, sent to live with his aunt and uncle on the neighbouring farm. When a tractor accident leaves Russell with a twisted right leg, the bond between the boys grows strong, and Russell becomes a de facto member of the family.

Etta enters the boys’ lives almost a decade later. Despite the fact they are all the same age, she is their teacher. Both Otto and Russell notice the pretty young woman, though it’s obvious Russell is the more smitten of the two. Still, when Otto enlists to serve in the Second World War, he asks Etta to correspond with him, ostensibly so he can improve his literacy. Left behind because of his leg, Russell continues to attend the one-room schoolhouse, though he’s long since exhausted the limited learning available to him.

Hooper creates a detailed environment for her characters. The dust of the prairies is ever-present, leaving a phantom grittiness in the reader’s mouth. Otto’s wartime horrors, described in spare, fleeting scenes, resound with blood and flashes of pain and death. Many of these episodes are relived by Etta, who – in one of the novel’s more bizarre conceits – begins to experience Otto’s dreams and memories, losing herself in his mind even as her own memory fades.

What Hooper doesn’t do is provide a clear path between who these characters are during wartime and who they grow into decades later. Otto and Etta’s relationship begins with surprising passion, despite the fact that they really only become acquainted via their letters, the excerpts of which give little indication of the love forming between them. Why Etta chooses Otto over Russell is unclear, though it’s obvious that Otto is aware of Etta’s divided affections.

More than anything, the story is permeated with sadness. Echoing their wartime separation, Etta and Otto begin writing to each other again after she sets out on her odyssey,­ though only Etta’s letters make it to their intended reader. (Otto doesn’t know where to send the ones addressed to her, and stacks them neatly on the kitchen table for her to read when she gets home). Through these letters, we are given glimpses of a shared life built on acceptance and mutual understanding, though Hooper presents this subtly. More obvious is Russell’s heartbreak. When Etta takes off, he confronts Otto, demanding to know why he hasn’t gone after her. “Some fucking husband,” he spits at his former friend before heading out to try and track her down.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a story that nods in recognition of love, memory, sacrifice, and the human cost of war. Though Hooper threads some unusual elements through her narrative, those who seek comfort in quiet poeticism and timeless themes need look no further.