What The Word On The Street is Reading: Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Our Event Coordinator, Catherine, has been pretty busy this month, registering publishers, booksellers, and literacy organizations for The Word On The Street’s 2015 exhibitor marketplace, but she still found the time to delve into a new release published by Hamish Hamilton. Catherine’s latest read was Etta And Otto And Russell And James by Emma Hooper.

About the book:

Etta and Otto cover

Eighty-two-year-old Etta has never seen the ocean. So early one morning she takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 3,232 kilometers from Saskatchewan to Halifax.

Her husband Otto wakes to a note left on the kitchen table. I will try to remember to come back, Etta writes. Otto has seen the ocean, having crossed the Atlantic years ago to fight in a far-away war, so he understands. But with Etta gone, the memories come crowding in. The only way to keep them at bay is to keep his hands busy.

Russell, raised as a brother to Otto, has loved Etta from afar for sixty years. He insists on finding Etta, wherever she’s gone. Leaving his farm will be the first act of defiance in his whole life.

As Etta walks toward the ocean – accompanied by a coyote named James – memory, illusion, and reality blur. Like the gentle undulation of waves, Etta and Otto and Russell and James moves from a past filled with of hunger, war, passion, and hope to a present of quiet industry and peaceful communion; from trying to remember to trying to forget.

A beautiful novel that reminds us that it’s never too late to see the things you’ve longed to see, or to say the things you’ve longed to say.

Q&A with Catherine

What drew you to this book?

“Quite simply, the title drew me in. It is an odd list of names. I instantly wondered who these characters were and what brought them together.

Perhaps it is because my grandmother’s 90th birthday is just a couple weeks away, but I was drawn to the story of an elderly woman, Etta, walking from Saskatchewan to Halifax to see the ocean. There is a journalist in the novel that joins Etta for the last leg of the journey. She is reluctant to share her story saying it is “terribly, wonderfully small”. I read that a couple times. Emma Hooper tells what seems to be a small tale but spreads it across land, and over decades. Hooper loosely knits the past and present, threading in characters; each in relation to the other. The story becomes vast, a love triangle, an adventure.”

Did you enjoy the book?

“I enjoyed so much about the book! The slow pace that matches Etta’s steps, Otto’s letters, and Russell’s steadfast love. The idea of necessary journeys resonates with the reader, and the heroism, and the war. The way each character waits, and the papier-mâché. The bond of family, and the prairie dust. Each stabilizing memory, the fish bones and the enduring loyalty.”

Would you recommend it?

“I would recommend this book to those that like delicate prose. It often reads like a fable, very matter of fact, with a talking coyote.

I was not surprised to discover that Hooper is a musician. This novel is a ballad.”

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