“Go, Russell, go do whatever, wherever. Go do it alone, and now, because you want to and you can. You always could have if you wanted to enough.”
Etta Vogel, nee Kinnick, has lived a long life in Davidsdottir, Saskatchewan, on a farm she works with her husband, Otto. Their courtship began decades earlier, when Otto shipped out across the sea, one of many Canadian soldiers who went to fight in France, and they started to exchange letters. But at 82, as Etta’s memory is beginning to slip, she still regrets one thing; she has never seen the sea. So one day, without warning, she packs a bag and sets out, on foot, towards the Atlantic, with a piece of paper in her pocket to remind her who she is and where she is going. When Otto finds Etta’s note, he chooses not to follow after her, instead tracking her imagined progress across the country on his globe. But their life-long neighbour Russell, Otto’s best friend, and one-time rival for Etta’s heart, can’t accept Otto’s inaction, and decides to give chase once he realizes she is gone. But the only companion Etta really needs on her journey is James, a coyote she can talk to. Everyone else, from Russell, to Briony, a reporter who covers the story of her walk, to the public that becomes enchanted with her journey, is superfluous to her mission.
I picked up this title, despite some skepticism about the premise, on the recommendation of a colleague, spurred on by the fact that I was looking to read more Canadian titles in 2016. But the opening lines grabbed me immediately, and I was hooked. It wasn’t so much the idea of Etta’s journey that caught me, though that was romantic enough, but the final line of her letter: “I will try to remember to come back.” Etta is a compelling character not just because she decides to seize what is missing so late in her life, but because she does it in the face of losing herself completely, when it would probably be easier to just give in, and slip away. Etta can only half-remember who she is, but she knows there is something she still wants to do before she dies. Over the decades, Etta and Otto have sort of melded together into one, but now Etta struggles to separate a strand of herself out, even as dementia is slowly stealing her sense of self. Where her own memory gapes, Otto’s memories rush in to fill the void, and no matter how far she walks, she still cannot escape his long buried memories of the war.
Whereas Russell goes haring off after Etta, Otto seems to acknowledge that where once it was Etta’ turn to wait, and hope, and try to do something productive in the meantime, it is now his turn to stay on the farm while his wife goes out into the world. There is a pleasing symmetry to this structure, which is echoed in the way Otto and Etta’s courtship begins with letters during the war, and comes full circle to the epistolary format with Etta’s journey. Alone at home, Otto learns how to cook for himself, and begins building life-size papier-mache animals which he displays in the yard. As the newspapers begin to pick up the story of Etta’s walk, Otto gathers fame more locally when neighbours begin driving by to see his creations. While he waits, he writes to Etta, knowing that there is no way for his letters to find their way to her.
Emma Hooper strikes a delicate balance as she weaves back and forth in time and place, between Etta’s walk, and Otto’s wait, and back to Otto’s journey over the sea, and Etta’s wait, and the choice it forced her to make between two men. Hooper is also a musician, and there is an undeniable rhythm and repetition to her prose style. In addition to the weaving time line, there is also the seamlessly integrated magic realism. Fish skulls speak French, and whisper of the sea, while Etta is accompanied by a talking animal companion who may or may not be real. The reader cannot always be sure what has really happened, or who has said what. Hooper fans out the possibilities. In one sequence, Otto misses a phone call, and he tries to imagine who has that phone number, and what they would have said if he had answered. He is sure the call must have been about Etta, and so he imagines the many possible missteps on her journey that might lead to an emergency phone call home. Etta and Otto and Russell and James requires a degree of comfort with ambiguity, but amply rewards the willing suspension of disbelief.
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