Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper - book review: A long walk with a twist

Her writing is inventive, delightfully ludic

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There’s something of a vogue for narratives about walking: witness Rachel Joyce’s bestselling novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, now a movie, Wild.

In this debut fiction, 82-year-old Etta Vogel sets off from the farmlands of Saskatchewan in search of the sea, leaving a note for her husband Otto and a pile of recipe cards.

No explanation is ever volunteered, except that she’s “never seen the water”. Equally mysteriously, Otto knows from “the tightness in the skin across his chest” that she’s taken the longer option, 3,232 kilometres east to Halifax rather than 1,201 to Vancouver. All this whimsicality suggests a more tricksy literary confection than the sound narrative framework of a Rachel Joyce.

These initial suspicions are quickly confirmed. Etta traverses Canada in the company of a talking coyote she calls James. For a while they’re followed by the Vogels’ concerned neighbour Russell, whom Etta eventually sends north to fulfil his dream of riding among migrating caribou. Fame of her journey spreads and she’s greeted rapturously in the towns through which she passes. In the meantime, poor old Otto staves off loneliness at home by teaching himself to cook. We learn, very usefully, how to proof yeast and to make a sleeping poultice out of flax flowers.

Though related in the same arch tone, interjections from the characters’ past stories lend ballast to all this picaresque playfulness. Otto was one of 15 children brought up on the farm. Orphaned Russell came to live with his uncle and aunt next door. Etta, daughter of a newspaper editor, became their school-teacher, despite her tender years, taught Otto to write and Russell to dance. Illness, injury, sudden death and the Depression stalk their lives. When war broke out both the boys volunteered, but only Otto was deemed fit to fight. Emma Hooper cleverly weaves past and present, seasoning her narrative with letters, recipes, lists and anecdotes.

Her writing is inventive, delightfully ludic. Etta’s hair is “just-normal like a cowpat”. When she begs forgiveness from some fish for eating them they reply: ouiouiouioui, which seems to me exactly how French-Canadian minnows would speak. At the same time, all this whimsy runs the risk of distancing the reader from the characters. Even admirers of Emma Hooper’s prose, whisked here and there as the author’s fancy takes them, may yearn for some terra firma.