Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Rating: .5
Author: Emma Hooper
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Pub. date: Jan. 2014 (read Mar. 2019)

Okay, Emma Hooper is definitely emerging as one of my favourite writers! I read her second book, Our Homesick Songs, last year and absolutely loved it! I may have been a bit biased because it’s a book about Newfoundland, but Hooper herself isn’t a Newfoundlander and I really think it’s a book that can appeal to anyone. So when I saw her debut novel on sale at Book Outlet, I had to buy it.

Hooper has a really lovely way of writing and I could see how her style wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but I really love it. I feel like joined the “Book World” last year when I started my book blog because I was suddenly exposed to all these other book bloggers and booktubers that I hadn’t before. Booktube for sure is comprised mostly of young book bloggers (like they make me feel old), so they trend towards reading a lot of YA contemporary and YA fantasy. I’ve always liked both of those genres, but when I started engaging more in the book world, suddenly I felt like this was all I was being exposed to and as a result, I started reading a lot of YA and fantasy.

This is fine, because I love both those genres, but I’ve definitely become fatigued with them over the last 4-6 months and I went on a fantasy freeze back before Christmas. I enveloped myself back in fantasy in January again and I probably should have paced myself a little because coming into March, I definitely need another fantasy break.

Anyways, this was all a long winded way of saying that I’m trying to get back into reading some more literary fiction and reading Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James was like a breath of fresh air. I’ve discovered over the last few years that I prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven stories, even though they sometimes involve more of a commitment to read. I always love a good character driven story and overall I find them more rewarding.

I love Hooper’s subtle Canadian stories. I invested some time last year in reading more Canadian literature and damn, a lot of Canadian literature is just depressing. But even though both of Hooper’s books have some pretty sad themes, they are a joy to read and I love how she entwines magical elements into her stories and builds her narrative around everyday, mundane life events.

To get more to the point, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is story about people and relationships and the things we need to do in order to survive and find happiness. Etta and Otta have been married for many years when Otto wakes up one morning and finds a note from Etta saying that she needs to see the ocean and has decided to walk there. Etta and Otto live in Saskatchewan and Etta has chosen Halifax as her preferred destination. Russell is Otto’s best friend and adopted brother who lives next door and they are both affected by Etta’s absence since she has been with them since they became men.

The story follows Etta as she makes her way across Canada and Otto and Russell and they try to figure out how to live and adapt without her. We simultaneously get flashbacks to their shared childhood and the historical events that defined their lives. And like Hooper states in the synopsis, if you want to find out who James is, you’ll have to read the book.

Everything about this book is subtle, but I love how Hooper creates this sense of atmosphere throughout her novels. Do I believe Etta could survive walking across Canada without even a sleeping bag or a raincoat? Absolutely not, but Hooper makes her stories seem incredibly simple, while at the same time being very complex. I know I don’t understand even half of the nuances and themes of this story, but I like thinking about them. I love that Hooper never tells us how to feel, or even really how her characters feel. Everything is left up to our interpretation.

Like Our Homesick Songs, this is a look at the people who leave and the people who stay and how both of those journeys are impacted by that decision. Is home a place or is it the people who make up that place? How do our experiences and memories shape us?

I originally gave this book 4 stars, but after reflecting and writing this review I’m bumping it up to 4.5. I’m filled with such melancholy thinking about this book and there was honestly nothing I disliked about it. Our Homesick Songs is still my favourite of the two, but this one was wonderful too.

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Our Homesick Songs

Rating: ⭐
Author: Emma Hooper
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fiction
Pub date: Aug. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

I loved everything about this book.

I saw it floating around on Netgalley and Goodreads over the past year and I thought it had the most gorgeous cover, which reminded me of my home in Newfoundland, but I guess I never read the synopsis because when one of the book bloggers I follow posted a review about this book, I couldn’t believe it was actually about Newfoundland. (not that there’s any shortage of books about Newfoundland, I just wasn’t expecting to find one in the mainstream book world).

Our Homesick Songs is by Albertan author, Emma Hooper, and is about the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery in 1992 and the struggle many Newfoundlanders went through in making a living after their traditional livelihood was decimated. The story focuses on the Connor family, who lives in a small town called Big Running, on an island off the coast of Newfoundland. It tells the story of Aidan Connor and Martha Murphy – how they fell in love and were later forced to travel to the Alberta camps to find work – and their two children, Finn and Cora. It’s a family drama at heart, but setting and culture play a huge role in the story.

I grew up in Newfoundland, moving to BC after I finished university. My parents and grandparents are from rural Newfoundland communities and my maternal grandfather was a fisherman. Stories about Newfoundland always hold a special place in my heart because, I think more than anywhere else in Canada, Newfoundland has a very distinct sense of culture and belonging. I was too young to understand the cod moratorium in the early 1990’s, but I’ve witnessed the impact in had on rural Newfoundland, and how the return of the food fishery in 2007 was like a right of passage and a homecoming for many people. Everyone has friends and relatives who were forced to move out west in search of employment – it’s why I have so much family located in Alberta – but there is usually a keen desire to return home.

I was a bit nervous to read this book, seeing as it’s not actually written by a Newfoundlander. I mean, I know people write books all the time about places they’re not from, but you can’t help but feel a little bit nervous about having your beloved home recounted from the point of view of someone else. But Emma Hooper did a wonderful job with this book. Her writing is lyrical and beautiful and it really does evoke a strong sense of homesickness as you read her writing. I think she did a wonderful job capturing the love people feel for Newfoundland, and communicating how heartbreaking it is for people when they are forced to leave. I’m sure I related to it a little bit more as a Newfoundlander, but I really think that anyone can love and enjoy this book.

There’s two main stories being told throughout this book. There’s a current day story set in 1992. The fish have disappeared, and as such, so have the people. Big Running gets smaller every day as families take off for the mainland in search of work. There’s an abundance of jobs in the work camps up in Northern Alberta, so this is primarily where people flock. In an attempt to stay, Martha and Aidan share a camp job on rotation, with each of them doing a month on and a month off. Their children, Finn and Cora, struggle with the loss of one of their parents each month and the disappearance of their community. Cora escapes from her broken family by studying travel guides from the library and re-creating each country in one of the abandoned homes. Finn laments the loss of their way of life and comes up with a plan to try and draw the fish back to their shores. Both children are lonely, as are their parents, who are forced to live apart indefinitely.

The second story is recounted by Finn’s accordion teacher, Mrs Callaghan. She tells Finn the story of his parents and how they met and came to fall in love back in the 1970’s. The stories contrast each other in that one tells the story of how love began, whereas the other tells the story of how it starts to fall apart. And woven through both stories is the music that calls us all together and the importance it plays in Newfoundland culture.

I actually really loved the way Hooper wove music in through the story. Music is an incredibly important part of Newfoundland culture and I thought she really showcased that and linked it in really well with her themes of homesickness and loneliness. Finn plays the accordion, Cora plays the violin, and everybody sings or plays one musical instrument or another. Aidan and Martha sang to each other over the water for years without even being aware of the other. Music plays an important role in bringing people together and reminding them where they come from and I thought Hooper showcased this multiple times throughout the book. I loved when everyone showed up to Finn’s community meeting with their instruments. They knew they might be forced out of their homes, but saw the meeting as a good opportunity for one last community kitchen party.

This book also touches on the issue of government resettlement. It’s a heavy issue in itself and has been the focus of more than one book in the past, but I thought it worked well in this story and wasn’t overdone. It’s another important historical part of Newfoundland that is ongoing to this day, and I think it’s great to inform more people about it. Rural communities are very much disappearing in Newfoundland and it is heartbreaking. It’s difficult for the government to continue maintaining services to small backwater communities and it does happen where residents are encouraged by the government to relocate. For Finn, the deadline to decide on re-settlement was a catalyst to do something. He doesn’t want to leave his home or have his family be separated any longer, so he hatches a plan to try and bring back the fish.

This is a classic kind of slow-burn family drama, but no part of this story read slowly to me. Hooper does a great job on characterization and character development and even though it’s not a plot driven book, I could not put it down. I picked this one up with the intent of reading it simultaneously with a mystery novel, but once I started this one, I literally couldn’t bear to put it down and didn’t touch my other book once until finishing this one. I can see how this kind of writing isn’t for everyone, but I personally loved it.

In conclusion, I can already tell that this is a story that will stick with me and that I’ll be recommending to my family. Everything about this book worked for me and I loved how evocative and introspective the story was. The name Our Homesick Songs is the perfect name for this book because the writing, the setting, and the characters all evoke a very keen sense of longing. 5 stars, no question.