Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Emma and Otto“Tenderhearted and enchanting, Etta and Otto and Russell and James takes us on an incredible cross-country journey – from dusty land to stormy sea, from small moments of sweetness to grand gestures of love.” Marjorie Celona, Giller Prize-nominated author of Y – see my review of Y here.

Etta and Otto are a couple: the story begins when Etta leaves Otto a letter in blue ink and it says

I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.

Yours (always),

She also left a pile of recipe cards written in blue ink. “So he would know what and how to eat while she was away. Otto sat down at the table and arranged them so no two were overlapping. Columns and rows.” Otto thought about going to find her but he didn’t. He did go and get the globe and figured out that if she went  east she would have to walk 3,232 kilometers and if she went west to Vancouver it would be 1201 kilometers. He knew she would go east. “He could feel the tightness in the skin across his chest pulling that way. He noticed his rifle was missing from the front closet.”

Including Otto, his parents had fifteen children. If one counted Russell who spent much of his day at Otto’s home, they had sixteen children. Otto lived on a farm. Etta lived in town and had only one sister, Alma.

Etta and Otto didn’t actually meet until Etta became the school teacher at Otto’s school. Otto and Russell took turns going to school and the days one of them didn’t go the other helped with the farm work at Otto’s place and walked to school and back home with the other boy. Russell’s parents had lived in Saskatoon but his father died and his mother went to work in Regina and sent Russell to live with his aunt and uncle. Russell was five months younger than Otto.

“The day after Etta Kinnick’s appearance at Gopherlands (the school she would teach at), Otto went to meet Russell after school. He had finished giving the cows their drops (for the dust in their eyes). …He waited, leaning aganst the overlapping wood of the school’s siding, along with all the dogs from the vrious farms that came to meet their masters. …Together they all listened to the scraping and gathering of students at the end of their day.” When Russell came out he greeted Otto

“Otto! he said. This new teacher! This new teacher…Come on, let’s head home now. I want to talk to you now, away from here a bit. He put a hand on Otto’s should, steered him away…Otto, she’s wonderful, said Russell…Why didn’t you tell me she was wonderful?
I told you we had a new teacher. I told you she was nice.
Nice isn’t the same as wonderful.
No, I guess not.
I asked so many questions. I’m going to be noticed, Otto. I’m going to read all the books I can find. I’m going to be the best student she’s had…Otto,don’t you think she’s wonderful.
Otto shrugged. He wasn’t sure really. Miss Kinnick seemed to be a good teacher. And she had nice calves. But she was a teacher. Their teacher.
I think she’s wonderful,Otto, said Russell. Just that, wonderful.
Shut up, Russell,said Otto.  But he was happy.  Russell didn’t get excited very often.  It was nice to see.”

The conversation continues, but Otto has more important matters on his mind:

“Russell, said Otto, interrupting, Miss Kinnick is wonderful, it’s true, yes, and will continue to be, and we can talk about that lots and soon, but right now, I need your help. I need to steal the radio.”

The story of “stealing” the radio is a good one and an even better story involves the relationship that develops over their entire lifetimes between Etta and Russell and Otto. When we first meet Etta she is starting out on her journey to the water and she is carrying with her in her coat pocket a paper on which is written
Etta Gloria Kinnick of Deerdale Farm. 83 years old in August.

Will she get to the water? Will Otto and Russell just wait or will they try to find/follow her? Who is James?

This is a great adventure and will speak to the reader on many levels. I will add it to my list of well-written and innovative novels about aging. I highly recommend it. It is Emma Hooper’s first novel and I am impressed at her ability to write these characters so well.



If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie


1) from William Wordsworth, The Prelude

Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.

2) from Emily Dickinson, “770”

I lived on dread – [she wrote]
To those who know
The stimulus there is
In danger  –  other impetus
Is numb   –   and vitalless  –

(from pages 5 and 6 of the novel)

“Of course he’d considered going Outside thousands of times – as he’d If I Fall If I Dieconsidered executing a standing double backflip or walking around with his feet magnetized to the ceiling or chainsawing a trapdoor in the floor – but had never dared. Even when he lobbed their garbage bags as to the curb as he could manage from the front foyer, or watched shirtless neighbourhood boys plow their BMXs through the meaty summer heat, he’d never been sufficiently tempted. Mailmen over the years had asked why he and his mother were always home, and Will often replied, “Why are you a mailman?” with one raised eyebrow, which usually shut them up.

The real reason was that he was her protector. Her guardian. From herself. From it: the Black Lagoon. It wasn’t like he was trapped. The doors were not locked. She made no rules, issued no commandments, declared no penalties, and exacted no punishments. Staying Inside was something he’s invented, intuited, for her sake, to keep her from falling so deep she’d tremble and explode and weep all her tears and go dry and insubstantial as the dandelion fluff that occasionally coasted Inside like tiny satellites. He’d always known that if fear took her for good, he’d be left treading water forever in the ocean of life with nothing to buoy him.”

Will’s mother, Diane,  hadn’t always needed protection. She’d grown up in Thunder Bay and had a twin brother, Charlie. She’d been to New York with Arthur. She’d had a promising career as a film maker and a retrospective of her career was being planned. So how did she become agoraphobic? How did it happen: this intense all-consuming fear of the outside world? And how did it effect her son?

“How easy it is for a life to become tiny. How cleanly the world falls away.”

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the details but I continued to read anyway because I needed to understand. And Will is an irresistible narrator.

Will and his mother lived initially in Toronto. Arthur deposited generous support cheques in her account every month so that was not a problem. She had had a plan: it was about finding her balance and maybe making another film. She still owned the  house in Thunder Bay that she and Charlie had bought. Charlie worked in the grain elevators and was saving money to go to university but he died in an accident at work when he was 24.  Diane was the only surviving member of her family and she couldn’t bear to sell the house.

In Toronto when Will was a toddler there had been an incident on a subway platform.  She “still couldn’t summon the incident in her mind without panic spreading in her like laughter in a crowd. She knew she’d brushed against true madness that day because it was huge and blunt and screaming.”

“She’s blamed the city, its wilderness of signs and traffic and sounds, its flip book of faces and lightening storm of a million brains. So she packed up their apartment and moved Will north to Thunder Bay” where she hadn’t returned since Charlie died. She ought a car and drove the fourteen hours to Thunder Bay listening to the CBC for as long as the signal held ad then singing along to old tapes. She was surprisingly tranquil behind the wheel. She was a hive of activity when they reopened the house.

“The work did her good, and this was a period of reprieve.”

Driving gave her a sense of freedom but then crossing a highway in the Thunder Bay area she confused the brake and the accelerator. So she began to avoid the highway but new rules emerged: “No roads over a certain speed limit. No night driving. Then no left-hand turns. She hugged the shore of the right lane, never risking her car in the path of an onrushing vehicle …each night her mind burbled with the close calls of the day, the inadequate traffic bylaws, the numbers and speeds and the physics of it all. And after weeks of this she perceived driving for what it truly was: an impossibly complicated and lethal activity. ”

She gave up driving, sold the car and learning that the local public transportation system would not fill the gap, she and Will began to take taxis.  Soon she could no longer tolerate the taxis and their drivers and so that was when “ordering from home began in earnest.” She became a master at getting things delivered: she knew exactly when to use the words “severe condition” when placing an order.

If I Fall If I DieThen began another stage of withdrawal – pulling completely into the inside.  The avoidance of risk was a major consideration and the front yard and the back yard became too full of danger and so they stayed inside.  “It was almost relieving, this simplification, and there followed some relatively peaceful, untroubled years.”

So there you have much of the explanation of how the situation developed. But you need to read about their actual lives and see what it was like for them and possibly understand how it could  have worked. Because it did work although you might think it couldn’t possibly.

And you must meet Will.

And you will want to know whether Will ever goes Outside and, if he does, how does that go?

And if you are like this reader, you will also find the information contained about the elevators at Thunder Bay very interesting.

I like Michael Christie’s style and his imagery. Here’s a favourite passage of mine:

“Since he’d been riding trains, the whispering had worsened, and his words were further jumbling in his head, as though someone had taken a sledgehammer to the card catalogues in the library of his mind.”

Happy Reading!