Gerald Kolpan – Etta
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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
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.
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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.