Simon & Schuster, January 2015
Reviewed by Katie Yee
From the beginning, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, is set up as a love story. The story begins with a worn old man, Otto, discovering a letter left by Etta, his loving wife. She’s gone to see the ocean. After eighty-three years of wondering, she’s decided it’s an adventure she has to have.
Emma Hooper’s novel follows Etta as she attempts an improbable—but not completely impossible—endeavor: to walk across Canada, to see the ocean. While her journey—the places she sees, the people she encounters—is certainly bold and beautiful enough to fill an entire novel, what makes this story come to life are the stories surrounding and leading up to her present moments. Hooper seamlessly navigates through the lives of a cast of characters and confidently leads her readers back and forth through time and place.
In a short span of pages, we are introduced to the sleepy town Otto grew up in, at a time “when the flu came and wouldn’t go, and the soil was even dryer than usual, and the banks had all turned inside out, and all the farmers’ wives were losing more children than they were keeping,” one in which “the silhouette of a beautiful woman, then, was a silhouette rounded with potential.” In one short chapter, we are welcomed into this place and then torn from it, thrust into a faraway world ravaged by a cycle of senseless fighting. On one page, we watch a young Otto work in the fields with his neighbor and best friend, Russell. On the next, the two meet a young Etta when she moves to town to be a teacher. Then, we see Otto off to war. After that, we join him in the present day to see how he fills his time in Etta’s absence (what he calls coping, others see as unprecedented creativity). And after that, we’re right back with Etta, marching towards the sea alongside an unlikely new friend, James, and encountering excited crowds of people who have caught wind of this quiet act of courage, asking her to carry their small belongings, bits of themselves, with her, including “a button, a photograph, an arrowhead, a ring, a stalk of dried lavender, half a melted tea-light, and a silver baby spoon with the handle bent back on itself.”
Hooper not only details their adventures in her own unwaveringly luscious and delicate prose, but she takes it one step further. Like all great love stories, Etta and Otto and Russell and James incorporates letters, exchanged between Etta and Otto. However, Hooper adds a unique twist to this age-old trick. The letters begin almost like homework; Otto is practicing his spelling and grammar, which we watch improve over time, a physical manifestation of his growth. Never before has so much attention been paid to language—from sweeping descriptions, poetic pairing of words and sentences, to the nitty-gritty minutiae, the way these words appear on the page and the rules that give these sentences structure.
All this may sound distracting, the background information you need to read before getting to the meat of the story, but it’s not. Because this story is not solely about Etta seeing the ocean, or Otto’s own quiet endeavors at home. It’s not even about whether or not they find each other again at the end.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James may have all the elements of a classic love story, but it is so much more than that. It’s about unbelievable optimism, about the possibility of doing amazing things—not just in old age but also apart from the ones you love, apart from the people who give you comfort and strength. It is story born from imagination, from courage and conviction and curiosity (of the war, of the ocean). This novel encompasses whole lives: theirs, the lives that have touched them, and the lives they themselves have touched. It is a story that is simultaneously about the individual and the need to be connected to something bigger. It is a story every reader can relate to because, to some extent, we’re all passing off our buttons and photographs and other artifacts-of-life to the protagonist every time we pick up a book. It’s the whole point of great literature: to be transported, to be brought along on someone else’s adventure.