STARRED REVIEW
January 2015

An alluring, unpredictable debut

By Emma Hooper
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is at once alluring and unexpected. The novel opens with a letter from 83-year-old Etta to her husband, Otto. Etta has left the couple’s farm in Saskatchewan to walk more than 3,000 kilometers to see the ocean. In the letter, Etta tells Otto that she will try to remember to come back, a hint at her failing memory. Otto, hands trembling, decides not to follow.
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Etta and Otto and Russell and James is at once alluring and unexpected. The novel opens with a letter from 83-year-old Etta to her husband, Otto. Etta has left the couple’s farm in Saskatchewan to walk more than 3,000 kilometers to see the ocean. In the letter, Etta tells Otto that she will try to remember to come back, a hint at her failing memory. Otto, hands trembling, decides not to follow.

The setting quickly shifts to the early 1930s, where we meet young Otto and his 16-member family of farmers; Etta, who lives in town with her parents and sister; and Russell, a displaced orphan who lives with his aunt and uncle next door to Otto. From there, the novel—still told partially in letters—alternates between the characters’ early years to Etta’s current-day cross-country journey, revealing how the trio met, what drives them, and how their lives became so intimately interwoven.

Layered alongside Etta’s journey is Otto’s trip across the Atlantic at age 17 to fight during World War II. As Otto serves abroad, Etta looks after Russell, and the two become more reliant on one another. In the present, Otto’s memories of the war come to the forefront as he copes with Etta’s absence.

Emma Hooper’s debut is intelligent, moving and captivating. Inspired by a piece of her own family history, the author examines with creativity the consequences of great love and loss, blurring the lines between memory, illusion and reality. Perfectly crafted and endearing in its unpredictability, Etta and Otto and Russell and James pulls readers along with every page turn.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781476755670

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