The Book of Etta
Born into a world where men vastly outnumber women, Etta is expected to choose between two roles: mother or midwife.
And yet the protagonist of Meg Elison‘s eponymous second novel chooses a third: raider, a job that allows her to roam a sparsely populated Midwest, witnessing the myriad ways people have figured out how to survive.
The Book of Etta is among this year’s nominees for the Philip K. Dick Award, following in the footsteps of its predecessor, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, which earned Elison the Philip K. Dick Award in 2015.
In Midwife, Elison explored the dangers of being female in the aftermath of an apocalyptic illness that killed more women than men and rendered childbirth nearly always fatal.
Etta is set a century later. The midwife is now revered as the founder of Etta’s hometown, Nowhere, and the midwife’s diary is a bible of sorts, the subject of study and interpretation.
Thanks to the midwife’s influence, women wield power in Nowhere. They are the leaders and decision-makers, and family life is organized into Hives, with one woman free to choose multiple partners.
And yet even in a town where women are safe and respected, Etta feels out of place. She is most at ease on the road, where she assumes a male guise, calling herself Eddy. In her lone travels, of course, it is safer to pretend to be a man. But Eddy is more than mere disguise. Over time, Etta realizes that Eddy is a true expression of her identity.
“People like Etta often grow up feeling that the strictures imposed on them because of their assumed gender don’t suit them at all,” Elison explains in her New Books interview. “In Etta, I get to react to a lot of the gender roles that are imposed on women. … and explore what it looks like to pursue your own individual destiny.”
The Book of Etta has many layers. It is an adventure story, as its hero looks for useful relics among the ruins. It is a rescue story, as Etta/Eddy seeks to free women trapped in bondage. And it’s a story about memory and the power of writing, as reflected in the biblical resonance of Elison’s titles.
“I was really drawn to the idea of people without books, people without the ability to print books… People who don’t have books will come to rely on diaries,” Elison says.
Rob Wolf is the author of The Alternate Universe. He worked for a decade as a journalist, writing on a wide range of topics from science to justice reform. He now serves as director of communications at a think tank in New York City.