The Book of Etta (The Road to Nowhere), by Meg Elison
It is generations after The Book of the Unknown Midwife and that book is treated with near religious veneration by the people of Nowhere. The plague that killed so many is beginning to subside, but the treatment of women is still bizarre or evil in many places. There are some live births, more with each generation, as immunity increases.
Etta lives in Nowhere, the army base turned community of the first book. She is in her teens. In summer months she leaves to comb the countryside to retrieve metals and other valuable items. She shaves her head, binds her breasts, and travels as Eddy. When she can, she also saves women and girls from the rampant sex slavery in the world.
While she travels she trades drugs and potions made by friend and lover Alice who has taught herself chemistry and herb lore.
In her travels she meets a beautiful “horse woman” in a village. A small girl in that village has also been stolen in a raid by men from S-T-L (the once-city of St. Louis) which is ruled by a leader called The Lion. Eddy decides to travel to S-T-L to see if he can trade something for the girl. The horse woman follows chases after him in a vehicle and they manage to trade one of Alice’s opium poppy potions for the girl with an offer to trade more women for more of the drug. The Lion likes opium because it makes the women easier to “train”.
Eddy and the horse woman go back to Nowhere, but Eddy becomes jealous when Alice immediately becomes attracted to the horse woman. Eddy leaves to go west to the ocean and runs across a strange group headed by a very fertile woman prophet. After an attack from S-T-L slavers he leads the men of the town to use a hidden cache of military weapons to attack the slavers but this mission fails.
Returning home Etta learns that Nowhere has been attacked with nearly everyone she knew and loved either enslaved or killed. As Eddy she strikes out to S-T-L on her own with a vow to kill The Lion and reclaim the ones she loves.
As in the first volume The Book of Etta has a strong feminist message. It also takes a powerful look at identity. Etta is barely able to separate herself from her Eddy persona. It’s clear that this is more than a costume change and the two identities are nearly at war with each other. Etta disappoints her mother by not wanting to try to have children. Eventually, in a crisis moment, an earlier trauma is revealed that pushed Etta into the Eddy personality when traveling.
Elison manages a tremendous narrative while still poking at the reader’s conscience and presenting acts by the slavers that press on the heart like a thousand pound weight. There are heroic, loving, and even light moments in the book but the tension of the dangers of the world thread through the entire story. It’s an excellent sequel to an amazing book and leaves room at the end for more to come.