This is a charming first novel, easy to read and extremely hard to put down. Enter Etta, an 83-year-old former teacher, married to Otto. Etta has had an unfulfilled dream for years:
living on the prairies of Saskatchewan, she wants to see the ocean. Easy. But the only way she can figure out to do that is to start walking, with a few sundry necessities and her husband’s gun to be utilized alternately as weapon or cane.
The first chapter, a letter, is one of the best in recent memory: “Otto, 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.” Otto saw the ocean when he served in the Atlantic in World War II.
Along her way, Etta is joined by James--a coyote and her spiritual guide. When she goes through cities, he meets her on the other side. He teaches her how to eat a raw squirrel; she carries him on her back when his paw has been wounded in a leg-hold trap. They speak and sing together. This, too, is charming, not sentimental as it might have been if crafted by less skilled--and imaginative--hands.
The fourth character, Russell, is a neighbor farmer and lifelong friend of Otto and Etta. He has loved Etta his whole life and has his own unrealized personal dreams.
While Etta is gone, as Otto is lonely, he adopts a guinea pig (Oats) and crafts a papier-mâché pig for the creature’s company. This creation leads to an obsessive period in which Otto makes many larger creatures, including two deer for Russell, who has always wanted to bag a deer. The work is good enough for a gallery, but Otto has no interest in letting it out of his possession, continuing to create more, some representing parts of the three friends’ lives. He learns to cook from Etta’s old recipes. The couple write each other, but most letters never arrive.
This book is about courage; about the fidelity and wisdom of animals other than human; about human love and patience; about the inevitability of aging. It is part magical realism, often told in flashbacks and dream-like sequences.
For a first novel, this feels like a stunning achievement. Hooper appears quite wise at a somewhat tender age. Born in Canada, she lives in England, where she also teaches and performs music.
Warning to all: the beginning, hopeful and surprising, is far more pleasant to contemplate than the conclusion, as realistic as it may be.
And beware elderly, coupled readers: Etta may be more of a role model than you ever have wanted.