There are a handful of novels that I think of as falling into the category “fit for most women readers.” This genre would include things like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Jim the Boy. The everywoman’s novel, perhaps, that is touching and deep and full of characters that hit home. Heartfelt. Tender. Funny. Easy-to-sell. Ones that I enjoy right along side of my mother and grandmother. Initially in my mind, I put Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James into this category. Partly because the copy on the book jacket makes it sound like the twin novel of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Partly because the story starts out sweet and heartfelt and feel-good. And although I normally love these easy reads I feel ashamed to have lumped Etta and Otto in with them. Etta and Otto is something wonderful and rare.
The novel opens with a note to Otto, from Etta. Gone to see the ocean, it says. And Otto knows that she will have taken off on foot, and that she will have taken the longest route (can you see why it reminded me of Harold Fry?) What follows is the perfect story. Maybe it is just perfect for me, for my tastes, but it has everything I love to read: small farm town with a one-room schoolhouse, families bursting with brothers and sisters and work to be done. Best friends (Otto and Russell), love stories, a war story, whimsy and art and nature. I was expecting this tale of a woman who walks out of town to be sentimental, rewarding, ending in a happy bow. It was SO MUCH MORE. Every few pages I would find myself thinking “I love Otto best.” And then a few short pages later, “No, Russell is my favorite. I love Russell.” Again, but with Etta and then back to Otto and so on. James, the coyote that accompanies Etta on her journey, was perfect for what he was (a coyote, only mildly lovable).
That is how I feel, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the story. So here is what I’d say: Etta has gone walking to see the ocean. She is old and maybe ill prepared. She leaves Otto behind at home with a box full of recipes and a promise that she’ll return. Russell, Otto’s best friend, has spent his lifetime loving Etta from the farm next door. As Etta walks, we get the story of their youths – Etta and Otto and Russell – from their childhoods through the war and back again to poor farmsteads. There was WAY more in this novel that I expected to find, I was blown away and think that most readers will be too. Plainsong meets Jim the Boy meets Mutant Message Down Under.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper (Simon & Schuster | ISBN 9781476755670 | January 20, 2015)