How do you imagine life after a worldwide catastrophic event?
Meg Elison’s The Book of Etta is a visit, generations later, into the world of The Unnamed Midwife. In the first book an unknown virus wipes out a majority of the US population, especially effecting women of childbearing age and newborn babies. What is left is a desolate and unlawful society. The story follows the journey of an unnamed nurse, who disguises herself as man to survive in a time where the very few women left are brutalized and trafficked. She documents her experiences in a journal until she ends up at a compound in Missouri that has established a semblance of an orderly and fair society intent on helping reestablish the human population.
The sequel to this story, The Book of Etta, takes place at the same compound in Missouri, where they revere the unnamed midwife and count her writings as almost sacred. Etta is the daughter of one of the leaders of the compound, a midwife and teacher, but instead of following in her mother’s footsteps she has chosen to be a raider who secretly disguises herself as a male named Eddie. Her mother knows nothing of this alter ego and continually pressures Etta to pursue the calling of a woman. Hints are continually dropped that Eddie is the result of a traumatic experience Etta suffered. Eddie’s missions take him around the state in an attempt to locate items the compound needs or could use, but most importantly helping captive women and girls obtain their freedom by any means necessary. It is a violent time with no regard for human life, only self preservation or self promotion, and Eddie is quite adept at navigating this world.
While The Unnamed Midwife was a graphic portrayal of humanity’s baseness and the crumbling of society, The Book of Etta, seems to focus more on the internal sexual identity battles the main character faces in an immoral society where men far outnumber women. This internal battle between Etta and Eddie colors most scenes and interactions. Also, the groups that Eddie encounters with orderly societies and large populations of women are usually portrayed as religious enclaves, which Eddie regards as bizarre and abnormal. The antagonist of the story is the kingpin of the remains of St. Louis, a massive man called the Lion who actually keeps captive lions. The story’s brutal ending is depressing and leaves the reader with very little resolution for Etta/Eddie in her identity struggles. For me, the story fell short of The Unnamed Midwife. Both stories tap into the morbid curiosity that all humans have, like rubbernecking at a car wreck, but The Book of Etta’s focus on the internal sexual struggles of the main character seemed to overshadow the rest of the story.