Penguin sent me a complimentary copy, however all opinions are my own.
It’s not an easy thing, leaving home. But if you’re going to somewhere, rather than away from somewhere, well that can make all the difference. Such is the case with 82-year-old Etta, who leaves her husband Otto and their Saskatchewan farmhouse early one morning to see the ocean in Halifax. On foot. As Etta moves forward, the novel stitches the past with the present to create a narrative rich with passion, love, loss and the horrors of the Second World War. Despite her failing memory, Etta leaves no one behind.
I was a bit skeptical of the premise — how could an 82-year-old woman walk 3,232 kilometres? — and how Etta left with so little and so casually, as if she were stepping out for a bag of milk. But a quick turn to her and Otto’s childhoods gave me something real to hang onto. I could suspend my doubt about Etta’s pilgrimage if I could learn how she came to make it. What fascinated me most was the main characters’ histories and how their lives become intertwined. Given the dream-like quality of Etta’s present-day journey, it’s astonishing that Hooper is able to make the relationship between Etta and her travel companion — a talking coyote named James — seem viable and necessary.
Hooper’s writing is poetic and precise and moves quickly like a river, carrying you along through the story almost effortlessly. I say “almost” because there is a bit near the end where it’s difficult to know who is speaking, but this is intentional and sorted within a few pages. I finished the book the day I started it, then immediately wanted to read it again.
All I could ask to improve it — and really, it needs no improvement — would be more. More about Etta’s sister Winnie, who goes to a convent to have her illegitimate baby; more about Owen, the boy so in love with Otto that he follows him to war; more about Byrony, the reporter who joins Etta to carry out her own journey; and more about Etta and Otto and Russell in the years between the war and the present. Which is an awful lot to ask of a story so brilliantly told, but I wanted the characters to stay and stay.
Have you read Etta and Otto and Russell and James? I’d love to hear what you think. What’s the last book you didn’t want to end?