First off, Write Reads is pleased as punch to have a guest blog going up on Book Bloggers International for their Canada month. We highly encourage you to check out the rest of the Canada posts! I very much enjoy how this blog tries to capture the passion of so many cultures for their literature. You can go check out my (Tania’s) contribution here.
Writing the piece for the BBI made me realize the importance of Prairie literature in my life, which coincided nicely with my picking up Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper. It’s the story of an octogenarian from Saskatchewan who leaves her husband, and her lifelong friend, to go on a walkabout to Halifax to see the ocean.
As you might imagine, the whole premise of this book is a little Forrest Gump-ily twee. You have to suspend your disbelief about an eighty-three-year-old woman who can survive sleeping in the wilderness, and walking from Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia. There are also a few other moments where your disbelief is tested. As the review from The Guardian states, these moments (except for the last one) are not the strongest parts of the book. But, on the whole, I thought this was a really good read, and that Hooper showed a lot of potential as an author. And, parts of this book really surprised me, which doesn’t happen that often. It’s a good book to read as you sit in the spring sun.
My favourite parts of the book are the ones that happen in between the story of the walk; the story of the three main characters (Etta, her husband Otto, and their friend Russell) as they grow up together in SK in the early to mid 1900s. Hooper really gets this storyline right, it’s hard to express how impressed I was with her writing in these sections. It is very reminiscent of classic Canadian Prairie books (Mitchell, Laurence etc) and you get the feel for the place, and for these characters as Otto goes off to war, Etta loses her little school, and Russell (who is crippled) is forced to be the one man in town who must stay. I loved the letters that run back and forth between Otto and Etta while he is at war, I loved Etta’s strong will, and I loved how Hooper created the romantic interests in the book (not twee at all in that respect). I was also totally tickled by what Hooper did with Otto’s sister, who goes off to contribute to the war effort, but I won’t spoil the surprise.
Perhaps part of the reason this storyline works so well is that it is routed in a reality that is close to Hooper? I get the feeling that Otto and Etta represent Hooper’s family, grandparents or something. She thanks a Caroline and Ted Old from SK at the end of the book. I found their gravesite online and “Ted” was a nickname for Otto.
For some reason, I didn’t feel that the book was as successful in its development of the characters when they were older, especially Russell. Their development seems to get fuzzy in those sections. Like they are more tropes that are supposed to represent something, rather than characters, and I missed them as characters. Hooper has stated that she wanted to express the way memories can overwhelm a person, can take over their own actual personality. So, I suppose this is what has happened to the three characters as they have gotten older; they now need to find their own voices, unburdened by memory and by each other. But, I’m not sure that their voices felt found – an awkward way to say that. Sorry. I guess I’m just not sure I felt this message was totally successful… but, Hooper does do something quite interesting by interrelating Etta’s increasing memory loss with the closeness of her relationship with Otto. I’ve never seen memory loss represented in quite this way, and whether it’s realistic or not, I thought it worked for the story. And, I thought it was notable that Hooper might be writing a story of her family’s past, which makes me curious about how memory might have affected her voice.
If you’re looking for a quick read that takes you beautifully back to the past, and you don’t mind a little fantasy in your prairie, I’d give this book a go.
BTW, James is a coyote. Just so you know 🙂
Do memories or other people in your life overwhelm your own personality? Or do they add to your sense of self, solidify it?