Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Another long walk

The recent Emma Hopper first novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James invites comparison with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2013). Both novels tell of an elderly person taking off suddenly on a very long walk, leaving a spouse behind. And each novel turns into a love story, though perhaps not in a way the reader might expect. That two writers should come up with similar ideas at about the same time is not that unusual. A year ago ("Who's in control?," Nov. 7, 2014) I wrote about Elizabeth Gilbert and Ann Patchett having eerily similar ideas for a story set in the Amazon. Gilbert ultimately dropped the idea. Patchett turned it into State of Wonder.

I can understand why some readers might prefer the subtlety and surrealism of Hopper's version of this story, although I favor Joyce's. Both are worth reading, however.

In Hopper's novel, Etta, a woman in her 80s, sets off walking from Saskatchewan to the Atlantic Ocean, leaving her husband, Otto, to fend for himself. They met many years before when Etta was a teenage teacher in a rural school and both Otto and his friend, Russell, were among her students. She and Otto were married after his return from World War II, yet Russell, always nearby, has long carried a buried passion for Etta. When she sets off on her walk, Russell is the one who takes off after her. Otto patiently waits for her return, creating amazing folk art in the meantime.

As for James, he is a coyote who accompanies Etta for much of her long journey. He keeps up his end of the conversation, or at least she imagines he does.

Hopper alternately tells us what Etta, Otto and Russell are doing now and what happened during those earlier days when Otto left school to go to war, but Russell, who couldn't pass the physical, stayed behind. Much of the novels consists of letters written during the war.

This is a tender story about long-term love, just a bit too ambiguous for my taste.

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