Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Emma Hooper

Published by Fig Tree UK, Simon & Schuster US

288pp, hardback, £12.99/$26

Reviewed by Alison Burns


‘Some months earlier, she had started getting pulled into Otto’s dreams instead of her own at night.  She would be pulled right in and would be there, in water, in trousers, standing on a grey beach with blood lapping up to her knees and men all around yelling and she would be there, sometimes with a spoon or a towel in her hand and sometimes with nothing.  Night after night.’

This is above all a tender story, with the wonderful Vogel family and their fifteen children at its heart : ‘You didn’t bother parents with child-problems unless there was blood or it involved an animal.’

Otto Vogel is one of the fifteen.  His friend Russell attached himself to the family as a child, and was lamed in an accident.  They grow up and go to school together, and there meet Otto’s future wife, Etta, a young school-teacher straight from training college, who befriends both of them.  Russell falls in love with her too.

The novel begins with Etta’s unscheduled departure from her marital home in Saskatchewan, rural Canada, at the age of 82.  She has decided to walk 2000 miles to the ocean, which she has never seen.  Her reason for leaving is that she cannot bear what Otto suffered during WWII, experiences which she is living through in her dreams.

In a tone reminiscent of Carol Shields’s much-loved novel The Stone Diaries  –  and, in one remarkable passage, of Ann Michaels’s searing Holocaust novel Fugitive Pieces  –  the young, Canadian-born but UK-resident author and musician Emma Hooper binds together the story of her characters’ childhood, wartime experiences and adulthood in a plaited narrative that makes everything simultaneously immediate.  The effect is incredibly touching.

The boys make clandestine visits to Russell’s aunt and uncle’s farm, to listen to wartime broadcasts, which are banned at the Vogel home.  As soon as he is old enough, Otto enlists.  Russell is rejected, because of his disability. Otto leaves to join the Canadian army, asking Etta to correspond with him, so that he can practise writing:  this is how they fall in love.  Years later, while Etta walks across Canada to the sea, they correspond again.  All this time, Russell has loved Etta.  In time, he sets out to follow her.

Etta, meanwhile, has picked up a companion along the way:  a faithful coyote whom she names James, after an unborn child.  Entirely believably, she survives on her wits and wilderness-wisdom, unaware initially that her trek has attracted nationwide attention and admiration.

I won’t give away the ending.  Suffice it to say that this glorious novel shows love of many kinds, including the parental and the uxorious, and is filled with common, homely touches, from the farmland to the kitchen to the schoolroom to the dancehall to the battlefield and the marriage bed.  One to read and re-read and tell your friends about.

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