Saturday, August 29, 2015

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, novel based on the true story of a female deputy sheriff in 1914

                   " I got a revolver to protect us," said Miss Constance, "and I soon had use for it."
                                                                                                 --New York Times, June 3, 1915

Amy Stewart's novel, GIRL WAITS WITH GUN, rings true. She includes real newspaper articles that give the Kopp sisters' story the authenticity of an era fairly forgotten in 2015. In 1914  Constance Kopp turned thirty-five on an isolated farm with her sister Norma, also a spinster, and 16-year old Fleurette.  It was eccentric that the three sisters and their mother chose to live on this farm, rather than town, where a school and other cultural advantages existed. It was unheard of, when their mother died, that the sisters decided to stay.  Despite the lack of conveniences, Fleurette's education at home and borderline poverty, they resisted the offers of their married brother to live with his family.

Typically, women without husbands for protection and no visible means of support were expected to move in with male relatives and be useful to their household.  The reasons the Kopp sisters resisted were rooted in both the secrets of their family and the narrow social conventions governing women's lives at that time.  With employment opportunities greatly limited, marriage was the most acceptable career. GIRL WAITS WITH GUN shows the rare independence of the Kopp sisters.

Constance, the oldest, was tall and broad-shouldered, smart and uncompromising. Though completely uninterested in farm life, she believed it was their best option. Her sense of responsibility was huge, as was her concern for Norma and, especially, Fleurette. Constance managed equipment, animals and finances, while working with Norma on the day to day running of the farm and Fleurette's lessons. She was also sick of the endless rounds of chores. The retiring life, the best for Fleurette, was occasionally too much even for them.

So, in the summer of 1914, they drove their buggy to Patterson, N.J. When a motor car plowed into them, the buggy overturned, pinning Fleurette, but the sisters were not seriously injured. Though badly shattered, the buggy was not beyond repair. Yet this accident would change the lives of all involved because Constance sought simple justice--payment for repairs from the driver, Henry Kauffman, a well-to-do silk manufacturer. Little did she know their seclusion was at an end.

Constance got Kauffman's contact information at the scene of the accident but, when her queries went unanswered, she had to track him down at his factory with her invoice. Non payment led to her meeting with the intrepid Sheriff Heath. Then, after payment, the Kopp sisters faced escalating harassment. Constance joined forces with the Sheriff to combat the powerful manufacturer and his "Black-hand" gang. The farm had become the site for a reign of terror that included threatening notes by "brick delivery." Then Fleurette was targeted to be kidnapped and sold into "white slavery."

Sheriff Heath first taught Constance, then the others, to shoot and gave out guns. During their long vigils with Heath's deputies, they would have to use them. But successfully defending themselves was one thing, bringing Kauffman to trial was another. Constance had to discover and assemble proof that would stick. Ignoring sex and class, she went on the offensive, risking her life for her sisters' safety. Ice storms, violence, notoriety in the papers; nothing deterred Constance from her course. At the end, justice was served and she had earned a real job, as one of the first female Sheriffs in the nation.

Read this very moving, even funny, action-packed novel.  What made it for me, besides the time-travel, was the portraits of the sisters. It may be invention but I found Constance's pragmatic yet inspired mental process, Norma's carrier pigeons and Fleurette's imaginative gift with a sewing machine endearing. These ladies were both modern, of their times, and somehow familiar. My grandmother made lentil soup for her family, before joining the march from Philadelphia to Washington for the women's right to vote--didn't happen until 1920.