Sometimes I just want to start walking. To pick a direction and continue until there isn’t land to walk on anymore. I’ve had this itch in the soles of my feet for a long time and am usually able to ignore it but sometimes it flares. When I hear of a friend completing the 800-kilometer Camino de Santiago across Spain, for example, or of coworkers cycling across Cuba on their vacation, I can feel it in my feet. And I’m not the only one. Just last year the idea of a woman walking was narrative enough to drive Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Mia Wasikowska in Tracks. You don’t really have to be escaping anything to justify picking up and leaving your life. You might just be the type of woman who is always looking to go.
Emma Hooper speaks to this desire in her debut novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James. Etta is a woman of 82 living on the Saskatchewan prairie who begins to walk toward the ocean. She has never been to the water and though the Pacific is closer, she goes east. She leaves a note for her husband Otto, promising she’ll try to remember to come back. Etta is accompanied only by a coyote whom she meets along the way and names James. Complicating it all is Etta and Otto’s neighbour and lifelong friend Russell, who decides that if Otto won’t go after Etta, then he will. As Etta walks, Hooper reveals the origins Etta and Otto and Russell’s connections with one another. We learn how the three came together and what they lost along the way.
In most stories a journey is motivated by a life event. Something bad has to happen to make a woman leave her life in such a drastic manner: the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage. Something is taken from her by force and the journey is a decision she can make to regain control of her life. There is no such trigger for Etta. She just sees that she is running out of road, knows that it is only a matter of time before her health goes and her memory fades. The journey is one of the last decisions that she can make for herself. As the woman walks, the story requires that she remember the thing she lost: that loved one, that spouse. But since memory is the very thing that Etta is losing, her journey becomes an opportunity to savour and suffer through those memories one more time before they slip away. A sister she loved, the war she survived, and the loves of Otto and Russell become her companions along her journey.
In all of this there is pain— pain that comes from walking hundreds of miles, the bleeding feet and aching muscles, but mostly the pain of remembering. The most fully rendered moments of Hooper’s novel are these small scenes of pain. A young Otto finds a motherless kitten and tries to take it as a pet. But he’s just a little boy and the pet is too young and it dies. Otto lives on a farm where animals die all the time and pets are not allowed, but his older brother allows him a moment of grief over the death. In another moment, during the Second World War, Russell tells of a mail carrier who is tasked with delivering yet another telegram that will destroy yet another family. The letter carrier, recognizing the colour of the envelope, asks the homeowner one stop before the delivery for a cup of coffee and sits in her kitchen for the rest of the afternoon, leaving the rest of the day’s work undone.
I wish Hooper had spent more time in these moments. The book is at times a war novel, at other times a fairy-tale, but it doesn’t commit to either of these fully. The prose is beautiful but there are areas that feel unfinished. The fantastical elements of the narration created by Etta’s dementia might have been used as a through-line for the book, as could Otto’s war experiences. Hooper tries to deliver this life story through three characters but only one—Etta—feels fully drawn. It is Etta’s story, the woman walking, a human life reaching its conclusion, a wife reflecting on sixty years of marriage, that makes this a journey worth following.
– Eva Jurczyk is a writer and librarian in Toronto. She blogs about books and Kanye West at Red Brick Reads.