Girl Waits With Gun
In award-winning books like THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST and FLOWER CONFIDENTIAL, Amy Stewart has proven again and again that she can write nonfiction that’s easily as entertaining as the best novels. Now, in GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, she shows that she is equally adept at fiction, crafting a well-researched historical novel based on the life of a real person but also incorporating characters and incidents invented whole cloth by Stewart.
The book is based on a year in the life of Constance Kopp, largely forgotten to history now but notable primarily for being one of the country’s first female deputy sheriffs (a position she attains only on the very last page, leaving this reader at least hoping for a sequel). At the opening, however, law enforcement is about the farthest thing from Constance’s mind. It’s the summer of 1914. She and her younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, have taken their horse and buggy from their farmhouse to nearby Paterson, New Jersey, for the day, only to be struck headlong by an automobile driven by a Mr. Henry Kaufman, one of the leaders of the city’s powerful silk dyeing business.
"With short chapters, compelling characters, and a real understanding of the world they inhabit, GIRL WAITS WITH GUN fits the very definition of a page-turner --- and one that will leave readers with plenty to mull over, to boot."
Constance’s courage in the face of Mr. Kaufman’s defiance, as well as her bold insistence that he pay the sisters for the significant damage to their buggy, seems at first to be a good idea. That is, until they become the targets of a campaign of harassment --- and worse --- by a group of thugs employing so-called Black Hand extortion techniques that had been successful in defeating a recent workers’ strike at the silk dyeing factories. Bricks with threatening messages are hurled through their windows nearly nightly; their house is broken into and ransacked; and Kaufman’s associates threaten to send Constance’s much-younger sister, Fleurette, to Chicago and sell her into white slavery.
Over the course of this intimidation campaign, Constance befriends the beleaguered county sheriff, who vows to try to protect them. She also gets caught up in a mystery surrounding another one of Kaufman’s victims, a woman whose son has disappeared. Constance has her own private reasons for trying to help the young lady, but as she investigates the mystery, she realizes that she may have both an interest in and an aptitude for this line of work, as unlikely as it might seem.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a skilled nonfiction writer, Stewart has a real knack for weaving together historical facts (including actual texts of newspaper articles, threatening notes, court transcripts, etc.) with an emotionally riveting story. Far from simply being a story of kidnapping or revenge, or even about a woman who defied gender stereotypes, GIRL WAITS WITH GUN is equally about relationships, especially the complicated and not always easy relationships among the Kopp sisters, who have struggled with balancing the stifling isolation imposed by their late mother with their feelings of insecurity and vulnerability after their mother’s recent death. Despite its dangers, their misadventures encourage all three women to view their situation with new eyes and to come away from it stronger and more engaged with the world, warts and all.
With short chapters, compelling characters, and a real understanding of the world they inhabit, GIRL WAITS WITH GUN fits the very definition of a page-turner --- and one that will leave readers with plenty to mull over, to boot.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 25, 2015