"Etta: A Novel"
(Reviewed by Jana Perskie APR 6, 2009)
"I must confess, Diary, that this polite conversation made it difficult for me not to titter and soon I began to giggle. The very idea of the Sundance Kid himself cordially exchanging formal pleasantries with a man in Manhattan whom he would not have hesitated to rob in Laramie simply struck me as hilarious. And, Lord help me, the more cross Harry became over my surely inappropriate laughter, the more uncontainable was my mirth. But make no mistake, I calmed down as soon as I saw the magnificent present he had chosen for me."
Our story opens with Miss Lorinda Reese Jamison of Philadelphia, graduate of the Irwin School, and cotillians at the Union League. However, Miss Lorinda was ever so much more than the usual deb. This high-spirited 19-year-old, rode like a hoyden, side saddle or astride, was even able to shoot like a pro...while on horseback. Her horse, the demon black stallion Bellerophon, was as wild as she was, and Lorinda was the only one who could handle him. Unfortunately, her days of good fortune were short. Mr. Graham David Jamison, her father and assistant chief officer of the Seaman's and Merchants National Bank and Mercantile Society, was somewhat of a profligate. He drank, gambled and owed over two million dollars in debts. So he committed suicide. Lorinda found him dead in his study. This deceased paragon, able to trace his ancestry back to the earliest days of the Republic, was now being investigated, posthumously, by the police and the bank for embezzlement. Lorinda, his only heir, watched as her house and all its belongings were sold. And she learned from the trusted family lawyer that the worst of her problems was yet to come.
Her father had gambled to such an extent that he became involved with a cabal of unscrupulous "Sicilian villains." They wanted their money, in cash, yesterday. Lorinda, now responsible for repaying the debt with interest, found herself penniless but brave. These ruthless criminals, who called their band of Merry Men, "The Black Hand, had the young lady followed and thought nothing of killing her or destroying her considerable beauty by throwing acid in her face. They would pursue her to the ends of the earth. Lorinda had to leave town, using the 1st of her aliases, immediately. Thus "Etta Place" was born. The kindly lawyer gave her false ID papers, money, a train ticket to Chicago and letters of recommendation to meet a Miss Lorretta Kelly at the Chicago train station.
Lorinda, aka Etta, was met as promised, along with a few hundred other young women applying for the same job. They were to be "Harvey Girls." At this time, trains in the West did not offer meal service. Fred Harvey assessed the situation and came up with a money-making business plan. He established a series of restaurants on the Santa Fe lines. Trains would stop for thirty minutes and passengers were permitted to disembark to get a good meal for a reasonable price in clean surroundings, very, very quickly. He recruited women via newspaper ads from towns and cities, stipulating that they had to be of good moral character, have an eighth grade education or higher, display good manners, be neat and articulate to work in his restaurants. If hired, they were given a rail pass to get to their Company chosen destination. Etta was assigned to work in the city of Grand Junction, Colorado. Although her work skills were excellent, her problems worsened when one day Earl Charmichael Dixon, a local scion, set eyes upon her lovely countenance. He wanted her for mistress or wife. Etta's response was "yuck!!" He persisted, tried to rape her and she shot him. No one listened to her explanations - she was simply deemed a murderess. Etta was jailed but fortunately escaped with a little help from her roommate Laura Bullion, aka Della Rose, and her lover.
On the trail for days, attempting to escape the law and the Black Hand, she and her aforementioned friends reached their destination of Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming Territory. After meeting several inhabitants of the town, like Frank Elliott, known as "Peg-Leg," the charming Butch Cassidy, (in all his incarnations), the ever-so-handsome Sundance, whose real name was Harry Longbaugh, and many other outlaws of a fictional nature, she was accepted as a kindred soul. As the author writes, "Etta Place, having met the requirements of leadership and community standards...and also being Wanted for FUGITIVE MURDER, is hereby accepted as a member in good standing of The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, and as such is entitled to all rights and privileges pertaining thereto."
Thus began Etta's uproarious, outrageous adventures as an outlaw, her intense romance with Harry Longbaugh/Sundance, which was to last all his life and most of hers, and the riotous train and bank robberies where Etta played the educated lady bandit to the hilt, ("she is highway lady to the ladies"). Always tailed, with unbelievable determination, by Pinkerton detectives, the Black Hand, and other sadistic villains, Etta proved she was a woman of true grit, even though there were many close calls, especially when she, or other gang members, were jailed...until they broke out. I could go on and on...but won't. Why should I spoil this delightful novel for you.
Historically, Etta, Butch and Sundance really existed, laughed, loved and robbed. Real life characters appear throughout the pages, i.e., Eleanor Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody and his Famous Wild West Show, presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, etc...however, in most cases the context in which they appear is fictional.
The prose is elegant and has a real flavor of the time. The narrative is interspersed with Etta's diary entries, newspaper clippings, Pinkerton WANTED notices, and letters which add so much to the diversity of the storyline.
I was left with a sense of nostalgia after reading the novel. Gerald Kolpan creates a magical ambiance for his characters to dwell in, whether in Philadelphia, New York, Colorado, Wyoming, Argentina, Bolivia, or an elegant chamber in the Waldorf Astoria where Etta and Sundance revel in their love. But the wild West is in its death throes. Civilization is encroaching on the frontier. An era is about to end.
I loved reading Etta: A Novel, even more than I loved the movie. But, of course, Etta is the star here. Kudos to Mr. Kolpan...and thank you for writing this book. I look forward to reading your next one.
- Amazon readers rating: from 70 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Etta at the author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Gerald Kolpan
- ReadingGroupGuide interview with Gerald Kolpan
- Publisher's interview with Gerald Kolpan
- New West review of Etta
- USA Today review of Etta
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About the Author:
Gerald Kolpan is an Emmy Award-winning television reporter in Philadelphia. Prior to his television career he wrote for newspapers and magazines nationwide and was a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered.