Book Review: Emma Hooper's "Etta and Otto and Russell and James"

Mar 5, 2015

Life is a wondrous bit of magical happenstance. Sadly, we usually forget that fact in the mundanity of it. We go from day to day lost in worries about jobs, family, and the future. Hours and days slip by one after another with little thought or memory attached to them.

If we are fortunate a moment arrives from time to time that makes you take a breath, pause, look around around the world and feel lucky.

The publishing world is a congested market. It can be argued (and it has been) that there are more authors than readers. And so, it is almost a shock when an author emerges from the masses with something that makes you look up from your day-to-day stresses and take notice. "Etta and Otto and Russell and James" by Emma Hooper did just that for me.

In her debut novel, Hooper introduces us to Etta and Otto, an old married couple in Canada. Otto wakes up one day to find that Etta is gone. She’s left only a message saying that she is off to see the ocean and she is traveling those 3,232 kilometers by foot. She doesn’t take much with her, just a few odds and ends and a note reminding her of who she is, since she suffers from the early stages of dementia. The novel follows Etta’s journey, which sparks the interest of the public after a newspaper photographer captures an image of her, but also returns to Otto as he passes his time waiting for her.  The novel also tells us the story of Otto’s time fighting in a war, their friend and neighbor Russell who spends his life waiting too, be it for Etta or the deer in his yard, and James, a coyote who just might be more than a coyote.

Emma Hooper isn’t just a writer of lovely stories, she’s also a musician. And I can’t help but feel her musical background influences the style of her prose in this book. She isn’t confined to what I would consider the rules of writing. Grammar seems to bend at her whim with descriptions blending into quotations as quotation marks would only get in the way for her prose. A single page might only have two sentences, but really you wouldn’t need a word more. There is a song under this tale, a soft hum, and it resides not just in the words but the spaces between them.

"Etta and Otto and Russell and James" is a stunning debut. This is not a book to skim over a weekend or add to a pile of books being read at the same time. No, not at all. This book deserves something more: your time. So set aside the dirty dishes and the pile of bills and just savor this book, if only for a moment.

Scott Southard is the author of the new novel "Permanent Spring Showers" and "A Jane Austen Daydream". You can follow his writing via his blog "The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard" at sdsouthard.com.