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I heard about this book on Morning Edition a couple of weeks ago, during one of Nancy Pearl’s chats with Steve Inskeep. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is Emma Hooper‘s debut novel, and it’s one of those books that had such buzz (it’s being published in eighteen languages right off the bat, it seems to be everywhere you look, it was starred in every major review journal in the U.S.) that I was skeptical. But it’s an incredibly good read, and unlike anything I’ve read.

Etta, Otto, and Russell grow up on the prairie in Saskatchewan. Otto comes from a large family, and Russell is an only child whose father dies during the Great Depression and whose mother takes him to live with a childless aunt and uncle, neighbors of Otto’s family. He is absorbed into the mob of siblings, and he and Otto take turns going to school and tending to farm work. Etta takes a job as teacher in their one room schoolhouse, even though she’s about the same age as Otto and Russell, right about the time most men — and older boys, like Otto — are leaving for the war.

When the novel opens they are in their 80’s. Otto wakes up one day and finds a note from Etta, “I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back. Yours (always), Etta. Beneath the letter she’s left him recipe cards, so he can eat while she’s away.

The rest of the book alternates between the present, as Etta walks, and Otto tries to get by without her, and Russell gets angry that Otto hasn’t stopped her and goes looking for her, and the past, when the three were growing up, and when Otto went to war. I don’t want to give too many details away about the story. I do want to say that the movement back and forth in time and place in the narrative is seamless and I was never lost. And that Otto’s sister Winnie is as intriguing a minor character as I’ve come across in a while — even in a book full of intriguing minor characters — and I sincerely hope she is marching around in Hooper’s brain demanding a book of her own.

Hooper writes beautifully, her prose is very clear but also has a musical or poetic quality. Things happen as they would in real life but also as they might in a dream. If you’ve noticed that I don’t say who James is, it’s because I think you’ll have more fun finding out for yourself.

I didn’t care much for The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry, which was also about an older person taking an impractical journey by foot, seeking. Hooper gets at so much more in this novel, and does it with much more evocative language. Here’s a bit where Otto is home on leave. He and Etta are in the schoolteacher’s cottage, and it’s his last evening, “It was windy outside and the wind blew dust up against the windows, coating them so thick all you could see from inside was the glow of late-day sun. From there, they could pretend they didn’t notice it dimming.”

Hooper references dust often, and dust advances her narrative more than once. But what I really love about that brief passage, beyond the dust, is how much is there — you’re transported to a languid afternoon, two people in love, snug in a house with the world pressing in. So much is about to happen in their lives, but for this moment, they are content to pretend that all they have in the world is each other.

At the library people often want me to tell them what a book is about. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is about what all good books are about — what it is to be human, to love and to hurt, to thrive and to suffer, to create and to deplete, to seek after the very puzzle of all of this, looking for what’s true, living as if life is a quest and the prize is knowing your own heart. This book isn’t for you if you like a neat ending to a clear-cut story. But if you want to wallow in the muddled, holy mess of life, pick up Hooper’s debut and give it a try.

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