Received a copy of Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper through the First Reads Giveaway program in exchange for an honest review
"We were at a party. One girl said I was like her grandmother, now dead. I told her I'm nobody's grandmother and I'm not dead, and she said that made it perfect."
What if the only thing on your bucket list was to fill your bucket before you kicked it. Eighty-two year old Etta Vogel is determined to see the water and begin dreaming her own dreams again before she dies. Through fire and brimstone she of the elder demographic will travel by foot to get there or die knowing she gave it her best effort. Her husband Otto is awakened mid-slumber at the realization of a vacancy, a coldness on the other side of the bed and notices a note on the kitchen table. After years and years of correspondence he knows the penmanship, he knows it's for him, he knows it's from Etta. He comes to grips, understands and doesn't ask questions. For his own sanity and putting his mind at ease, he knows that in his mind she is either headed west to Vancouver or east to Halifax, but he will not go out to find her, she obviously has something important to do and he won't impede her desires.
Lifetime native of the gently rolling plainss and fertile soils of Gopherlands, Saskatchewan, Otto Vogel was born into a large farming family to father Rupert and mother Grace and way too many brothers and sisters to name. Otto is the middle child of approximately seven brothers and six sisters. I say approximately with a smile on my face because it seemed that a Vogel child was being delivered or adopted at every turn of the page. But given that during the time of their births the mortality rate of newborns was extremely high, it really wasn't much of a laughing matter. The Vogel matriarch Grace was always round with child and was regarded as some sort of marvel to have been blessed with as many children as she had and not to have her babies visited by the grim reaper like so many of her peers. Unfortunately for Grace as well as other families during the time of this book, the majority of children were forced to enlist in military service and after a brief training period they made their way across the Atlantic. Otto was one of the few young men willing to go.
"Gérald hadn't gone home; he'd chosen to stay, to hold and watch things until Otto and the others came back. I prefer to imagine what going home could have been like, instead of knowing what it really would have been, he said. I sat out here on my own, out on watch eight p.m. to eight a.m., and I imagined I was sitting with my wife all night, night after night after night, and mon Dieu she was beautiful, and it was so simple and so easy."
Russell Palmer was born in Saskatoon and it wasn't until after his father's death that he ended up in Gopherlands. His mother was hired by a firm in Regina and midway through her one-way trip she left Russell with his aunt and uncle. Sick of being alone and being the sole provider of his own entertainment he spends most of his time with the contemporaries that he finds in the Vogel family and specifically Otto. After a tractor accident at the Vowel farm leaves him lame in one leg he tries his best to keep up with Otto whether it was in scholarly ambitions, enlisting in the military, or winning the hearts of women.
Etta Gloria Kinnick grew up on Deerdale Farm and had one sister Alma. Etta was very close to her sister and when Alma became pregnant at a less than ideal age given the time-period, she made the decision to live in a convent on Prince Edward Island. It was during her time in PEI where Alma experienced the numbers of young men making the crossing over the pond to fight in WW2. Alma was alarmed at the age of the boys going over and the condition of the men coming back. During the delivery Alma died of toxemia killing her as well as her child. Etta was heartbroken, and a month later she decided to become a teacher where she would form relationships that would last a lifetime.
"Under the desk, Etta's right hand clenched. It was just as Alma had described. Little by little, all the young men from all over the country heading east, marching past Alma's convent in mismatched socks, draining out like a hot summer's stream. Etta looked at her student, his hands folded into each other, calm, still at his desk. Just like that, she thought; it's that easy, they go just like that. She felt very heavy. When are you going? She said."
While Etta is away Otto is at a loss of what to do with himself. He fills his time writing letters to Etta that he has no address for delivery, baking various recipes that were compassionately left by Etta before she departed, tracking her progress on a globe given to him by her sister Winnie, making a special flax paste concoction to help him sleep better at night as well as making papier-mâché animals that are garnering some heavy praise from the locals.
This book travels through different narratives and different periods of time that makes it a very interesting read by allowing the reader into the hearts and minds of its main characters and their meaning of love. The author reveals a lot about the characters through their garnered wisdom along the way while still maintaining an air of mystery as to their past experiences, current motivations, and how they first became connected. Each character is given their due respect throughout the story which made the execution fully-developed and appreciated on my end. Some may find it difficult to read with its concise dialogue that is interchangeable between characters and is written without anticipated punctuation, but with focus and concentration I am sure you will get accustomed to it. What caused me problems throughout the novel were the blurring of lines between illusions, reflections, projections, dreamscapes and realities. I would recommend this novel to people that enjoy, and those that have enough patience for the literary prose that you will experience within these pages.
"Etta walked by herself back to the factory, pulling her hair up under its scarf as she went. You wait and you work, she whispered to herself, you wait, and you work. Her stomach turned backflips, stitched, kicked."