Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
As soon as I started this book I knew I was going to care about these characters. I was drawn into their story immediately, and while it left me with many questions, I enjoyed the ride.
Journeys are an integral part of this story. Etta, Otto and Russell have known each other since their teens. While they each have their own journey, they intersect in many ways. Otto and Russell grow up like brothers, Etta and Otto get married after mainly getting to know each other through letters while Otto is away at war, and Russell buys the farm next to theirs and spends 50 years quietly in love with Etta. The story jumps back and forth between the beginning of these relationships and the present so most of the in between years are left blank. You are given small insights into the lives of the main characters but so much is left up to the reader's imagination.
The book opens with Otto reading a note from 83 year old Etta telling him that she is off to visit the ocean--she has never seen the water and feels compelled to make this sojourn on her own. She tells Otto she will return if she can remember. From that point on you never know for sure what Etta's reality is. Otto and Russell each cope in their own way with Etta's leaving and this is where I started having questions. Why does Otto decide not to look for Etta and instead spend his sleepless nights creating a papier-mâché menagerie and what does it represent? Why is Russell always waiting for deer--is his waiting representative of something else? Russell does track Etta down, but gives up on bringing her home and goes instead to the north to study deer and caribou. Does he feel like Etta has released him in some way?
The story actually develops a sort of dreamy quality as Etta travels over thousands of miles on foot and runs into a talking coyote named James who joins her as a kind of spirit guide and protector. As her dementia increases and she slips in and out of reality Etta comes to depend on James to remind her of who she is. By the end of the story the writing changes into very short passages of just a paragraph or a couple of sentences per page rotating between each character. At times it seems like Etta and Otto have merged into each others dreams and minds until they almost become one.
When all was said and done I thought to myself, "What the heck?" I liked it so much, but felt like I needed to talk to someone else who had read it. In stepped my sister and we had a quick book discussion and came to the conclusion that the author wanted the book to be ambiguous and open to interpretation. Together we were able to answer some of our questions. I think this would be a great book club book, but if you are a reader who wants things tied up in a nice package and with a clear ending, then Etta and Otto and Russell and James might not be your cup of tea.