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Gerald Kolpan – Etta

January 8, 2009

LibraryThing Early Reviewers2. Etta by Gerald Kolpan (will be published on 24 March 2009)

Pre-order Etta on Amazon
Length: 330 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 03 January 2009
Finished: 04 January 2009

How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 18 December 2008
Verdict? Keeper

Sundance Kid’s girlfriend
comes to life in a book more
real than history.

Summary: Etta Place, the girlfriend of the Sundance Kid, is one of the most enigmatic figures of the American West. No one is sure who she really was or where she came from prior to 1900, and she disappears from history in 1909. In his debut novel, Kolpan offers up a vivid portrait of this beautiful, well-educated, and mysterious outlaw, as well as a plausible theory as to her origins. In Etta, when 18-year-old Philadelphia socialite Lorinda Jameson’s father kills himself, leaving her heir to his gambling debts and the ruthless criminals who are looking to collect on them, Lorinda is left with little choice but to change her name and flee town, eventually becoming a waitress in a frontier town in Colorado. After killing a local scion (and would-be rapist) in self-defense, she’s imprisoned, but escapes with the help of her roommate – a female member of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang. She falls in with the gang, falls in love with the Sundance Kid, robs trains, befriends young Eleanor Roosevelt, joins Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for a time, and generally stays one step ahead of the law, but the life of an outlaw is never easy… she’s still hunted by her father’s creditors, as well as by the notorious Pinkerton detectives.

Review: I don’t really read Westerns – in fact, my extremely limited knowledge of the Wild West comes almost exclusively from watching Deadwood on DVD. So, when I started this book, I’d never even heard the name Etta Place… but as I read, I quickly got to know her, and know her well. Kolpan not only brings this elusive figure to vivid life, but provides a background for her that is so plausible that it reads as truth rather than conjecture. Is it likely that the real Etta Place tamed an untameable horse, befriended Eleanor Roosevelt, saved the president’s life, was active in the early socialist movement, and was the only female to rob a train in New Jersey? No, probably not, but these people have become legends specifically because they’re larger than life, and Kolpan makes us believe that all of these things could have happened the way he says they did.

It’s this same larger-than-life quality that introduces a few pacing problems into the novel – because Etta does so much, and is involved with so many prominent people and events of the period, certain elements wind up getting shorter shrift than they deserve. Etta’s story is told in rich detail until the point where she actually becomes an outlaw, but after that, things get a little jumpier. I particularly wanted a little more detail regarding her life in the Wild Bunch – we get snippets, but it feels as though she both falls in love with Sundance and falls into the life of an outlaw a little too quickly to be fully believable.

Still, I really enjoyed this novel. Despite being centered around characters from the Wild West, it’s not really a Western – it’s more straight-up historical fiction. Kolpan’s writing is smooth and authentic, and he seamlessly weaves letters, newspaper articles, wanted ads, etc. into his main narrative, which is not always the easiest style to pull off. Etta inspired me to go learn more about the actual history of the people involved, plus it kept me interested enough to tear through it in less than two days. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: People who actually know something about the American West will be interested to see Kolpan’s vision of who Etta Place might have been, but more generally, anyone who likes vivid, well-crafted historical fiction should find this an absorbing read.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Etta website
– Wikipedia articles on: Etta Place, Harry Longbaugh (aka the Sundance Kid), and The Wild Bunch.

Other Reviews: As you read and review this, let me know… just leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: From the New York Herald Tribune, December 9, 1960: Lorinda Jameson Carr, 80: Philanthropist, Horsewoman, “Sure Shot” – Manhattan – Mrs. Lorinda Jameson Carr, wife of the late Ralph Worthington Carr, died at her Fifth Avenue apartment late Wednesday morning.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2009 2:56 am

    I loved this book. But admittedly your criticisms were similar to mine…I felt the end was a bit rushed and not enough attention to their time in South America or even when Sundance is killed.

    But I still loved the book and thought it was a great first novel!

  2. January 8, 2009 3:46 am

    Cool – I’m really looking forward to this now. I’ll probably read it closer to the release date though.

  3. January 8, 2009 4:59 am

    I gave you an award on my blog today. Check it out if you have a few minutes.

  4. January 8, 2009 8:26 am

    This is in my pile too – I can’t wait to read it. I’ve never read much historical fiction, but I want to stretch my self in that area this year.

  5. January 8, 2009 11:16 am

    Michele – I think if everyone got more detail where they’d wanted it, the book would have been twice as long as it was (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!) I’ll keep an eye out for your review and add the link, but if I miss it, just holler at me. :)

    Lenore – In general, I try to read ARCs not too long before their actual publication, but since this was a LibraryThing Early Reviewer book, it had a different deadline. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it!

    Sheri – Thank you! That’s so sweet!

    bermudaonion – That surprises me that you say you don’t read much historical fiction; it seems like a genre that you’d really enjoy, and there’s so many good books in the genre out there! I hope you do like it as much as much as I think you will! :)

  6. January 8, 2009 8:21 pm

    I was curious if it would be more of a western, and that’s part of the reason I didn’t request it. I have to be in just the right mood to read westerns. It’s good to know that it’s more of a historical fiction novel.

  7. January 9, 2009 11:01 am

    Great review! I was really excited to receive this one in the mail a few weeks ago and even more excited after reading your review. I don’t read a lot of westerns, but I really like the idea of “The West.” (Don’t know how many times I’ve tried to get my husband to go to the Billie The Kid museum while driving through New Mexico!!). :)

    Frustrating, though, that you don’t get more about her and The Wild Bunch–I don’t like when I’m left wanting more!

    Hey–is that “notify me of follow up comments via email” button new??

  8. January 9, 2009 12:57 pm

    Alyce – I’ll admit to being sort of surprised when I received it – I’d requested it because I thought it looked interesting, but there’s nothing in my LT library that would make me a good match for a western… but of course it’s not really a western, so.

    Trish – There’s a fair amount about her and the Wild Bunch; what I think was missing was the period of time involving her acclimation to *being* a member of the Wild Bunch, if that makes sense. Also, I didn’t know there was a “notify me” button – I can’t see it when I’m logged in – but checking the wordpress main blog, it was just released last night, so, cool!

  9. January 19, 2009 1:06 pm

    We’ve done a few side trips while on vacation to various western historical sites.. even saw Wyatt Earp’s grave! I’m not that into it myself but my husband likes that kind of thing. The book sounds really interesting though!

  10. STEVE WEINER permalink
    March 20, 2009 1:49 pm


  11. March 25, 2009 11:48 am

    I so want to read this book, especially after reading your thoughtful review. I grew up on western tv shows and movies in the late 60’s early 70’s and read alot of western-based novels. I also love to read debut authors. I didn’t realize that the book is being released TODAY! Yay! It looks like a trip to the bookstore is in my immediate future!! (Like I need an excuse!) lol Thanks for the fantastic review!

  12. March 30, 2009 11:04 am

    Lisamm – I’ve never done much tourism in that part of the country, but now I want to… sounds neat!

    Steve – I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    Lisa – Thanks for the heads-up on the release date! I hope that you found a copy, and that you like it as much as I did!


  1. Giveaway of Etta by Gerald Kolpan « Fyrefly’s Book Blog

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