The novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper is a story about both losing and recollecting yourself in the love and life of another. Set 60 odd years after the Second World War, the novel is primarily the story of Etta – a woman who spends the years during the war working and waiting for her soon to be husband, Otto, to return from the fighting, and then the rest of her life as his wife.
At the novel’s start Etta is 82 and beginning to show signs of dementia. However, it soon becomes clear that Etta’s forgetfulness is a symtom of a broader theme. Through the course of the novel, we are given images of women whose dreams are curtailed by limitations imposed on them by the real or assumed expectations of others. Most poignant, is the image of Etta’s sister, Alma, who wants to live a life of adventures. However, becoming pregnant as a teenager, she instead leaves her home and joins a group of nuns, only to die in childbirth. Etta, who dreamt of becoming a nun herself, had thought she’d prefer it if the adventures would end. However, having now lived what appears to have been a fairly traditional and quiet life of a farmer’s wife, she realizes that her husband’s dreams and even memories have literally taken over her subconscious and she tries to sleep so that their bodies no longer touch as a way of preventing further infection. Etta fears not just losing her memory, but of having lost herself in the shared life she has lived with her husband.
Of all of Otto’s memories, the most troubling one that consistently haunts his dreams, is one of his final moments in the war when in the midst of a battle they take to a river for cover. Wounded and struggling to save himself in the bloody water admidst the bodies of soldiers, both alive and dead, Otto discovers the body of a young friend who had followed him to battle. As these nightmares of water invade Etta’s memory, Etta believes that she must reclaim herself, replacing Otto’s images of water with her own. She sets out to walk from Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia.
Even though Etta leaves Otto home, she is not able to overcome the place that Otto has gained in her mind and her heart. Instead, it turns out that to know herself, Etta has to fully come to know the man she has loved and the things he has suffered. She spends days walking, primarily with James, a coyote who, like the fish skulls she has carried since a child, speaks to her and reminds her of who she is and what she should do, while at night she dreams, going further and further into Otto’s nightmare, until she wakes up one morning having fully made the transference. What used to be true only in sleep becomes her reality. She is Otto. But all is not lost, for James, who symbolizes all of her lost loves and thus her own suffering, appears and she recollects herself.
Otto hasn’t been an impediment to her autonomy and her life with him hasn’t been one of mere service, but of love. By fully experiencing the life of her husband, her beloved, Etta reclaims herself. She is able to know herself by knowing the person that she loves. His good is her good. Hence in the final moments of the novel, Etta reaches the ocean, and leaving even James behind, she goes under water, only to discover that Otto is there.
While Etta was walking, Otto has gone through a similar transformation at home, taking on the life and pain of his wife. He has baked from Etta’s recipes and created or given birth to paper mâché animals and even a little girl, creations whose fragility means that they, like Alma’s and Etta’s own babies, won’t survive long. At the moment Etta reaches the ocean, Otto simultaneously dies and appears to Emma under the water, now a part of her vision or dream. Recollecting herself, Etta again discovers Otto, but not the Otto of the past, but Otto as he is now. Knowing themselves now through the eyes of the individual they love, they are able to overcome whatever their resentments had been, and realize an even fuller love. The water washing over them absolves them as they apologize and forgive. Even though Otto has died, the end is not sad, for as Etta notes, it is all one long loop, and she will soon return to him, so that they might begin yet again.