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.



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