Etta and Otto are an elderly Canadian couple who’ve been married ever since Otto returned from the traumas of WWII. One morning, he wakes up to find that his 82-year-old wife has, without warning, set off on a cross-country walking trip (‘I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there’ she says in the note she leaves behind). With no idea where she’s headed and no way to contact her, all he can do is wait. She’s thoughtfully written out all her recipes so he won’t go hungry.
At the next farm along lives their oldest friend Russell, whose feelings for Etta take him on a journey of his own.
Moving back and forth between Etta’s roadtrip and flashbacks to their formative years in Depression-era rural Saskatchewan, this is a simple tale about ordinary people, told in a beautiful, moving way. Author Emma Hooper’s background as a professional musician comes through clearly in the lyricism of her language. Her imagery is evocatively sketched – following a childhood accident, for example, Russell has a twisted leg (‘like a liquorice lace’), and is memorably described as ‘waltzing with himself’.
Fans of Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will find much to like here, and I was also reminded of great magic realism writers like Laura Esquivel. This might be too whimsical for some – the James of the title is Etta’s walking companion, an imaginary talking coyote who likes Country songs – and the dreamlike quality of Etta’s adventures makes it nebulous in parts, but this is a magical tale that’s full of heart.
I had the opportunity to hear Hooper talk about her book at an event recently, and she revealed that her agent was keen to send her manuscript to commissioning editors, not because of the gorgeous prose and universal themes, but because “old people are hot right now”. While it’s indisputable that there is currently a trend for old-folk-walking fiction, that shouldn’t detract from what is an accomplished and charismatic debut, with characters you miss as soon as you close the book.
Emma Hooper talks about how her grandparents inspired the story here: