Merrimon Book Reviews

Harry Longabaugh (the Sundance Kid) and Etta Place, just before they headed to South America

Five members of the Wild Bunch pose for a group photo.
Back row, from left to right: Harvey 'Kid Curry' Logan, Butch Cassidy. Front row, from left to right: Henry 'Sundance Kid' Longabaugh, Will Carver, Ben 'Tall Texan' Kilpatrick

Eleanor Roosevelt and her future mother-in-law Sara Delano Roosevelt in 1904

From Merrimon Book Reviews
Etta by Gerald Kolpan
by Gerald Kolpan

The enigmatic Etta Place: a Western adventure real and imagined

History records very little about Etta Place, the woman who accompanied Harry Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid, during his outlaw days in the Wild West.  Gerald Kolpan writes a fictional biography of the life of the enigmatic Etta Place complete with adventure and romance while placing her within the midst of some of the events of the period.  Diaries, newspaper articles, Wanted notices, memos from the Pinkerton agency and even personal letters add a sense of narrative excitement and variety to the more typical straight third person story that binds the various aspects of the story together.  Gerald Kolpan's ETTA places the history of the emerging west within the context of the larger United States as the journey of Etta Place's life moves from location to location, including Pennsylvania, New York and even Atlanta.  Using historical documents to spur his literary imagination, Gerald Kolpan creates a work of dramatic adventure that captures the dynamism, danger and wildness of America's expansion westward. 

Despite her more sophisticated upbringing, Etta Place herself can handle the wildest stallion and her shooting skills rival the best of men.  Forced to flee westward to protect herself when the death of her father leaves her penniless, Etta Place joins the railroad's establishment as a Harvey Girl, an elite group of girls known for their heavenly and sanitary presence in a rough world, giving succor and comfort to wearied travelers.  Just when she becomes settled in her new life, she finds the need to escape again as scandal destroys all she has carefully built.  Gerald Kolpan presents a frightening look at the influence of power and wealth behind the railroad and western towns when even the most independent woman defends herself from the advances of a man with connections.  As the story progresses, Etta Place joins the Wild Bunch, the notorious gang of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Kid Curry.  Etta makes both friends and enemies as her life takes unexpected turns all the way to her final escape.  Known for a certain kindness and generosity among friends, some go to extraordinary lengths to protect her.  Others, such as Detective Charles A. Siringo, are just as determined to bring in the notorious gang of outlaws and thereby maintain the reputation of the Pinkerton company.  Among them, Etta Place has a reputation of deviousness and danger.  She may be a woman, but she deserves a special warning to beware.  Although Etta has become a thief and outlaw, Gerald Kolpan presents her character in a favorable light by juxtaposing the actions of the outlaw gang to the avaricious greed of the railroad establishment.  Furthermore, as Etta Place develops a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, the reader sees in Etta the woman beyond the less savory reputation created by the media of the day.

Etta Place's relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt is a troublesome point in the narrative.   It is not just the portrayal of Eleanor's amorous feelings for Etta itself, but rather, the episode changes how the reader views the rest of the story.  Suddenly, the shift between the appearance of documented history and imagined history strikes the reader more than any other previous section of the novel.  In the notes at the back of the book, the author discusses this episode as created out of his imagination, although he refers to rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt's relationships with other women.  Whatever is the real documented truth, as presented in the context of this book,  Eleanor Roosevelt as a character is somewhat problematic within the narrative as whole.  To those familiar with the works of Eleanor Roosevelt, interesting parallels between her good works and Etta's do benefit, resonating in the meeting of these two characters. Nevertheless, his portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt weakens that purpose as she appears as a rather weak character, especially in comparison to the actual readily known historical figure.  At this particular juncture, everything became suspect in terms of the historical period.  The narrative fell apart structurally as well. Was there a Black Hand mafia? What about this or that?  These scenes change how other aspects of the text are read. 
After that point, other later scenes read more as tokenism rather than a rich portrait of the West's diverse population of Chinese immigrants, American Indians, African Americans, etc.  From this point on, the author often skims over that potential with the mention of labels in place of the intriguing insights mentioned in his earlier portrayal of the Harvey Girls or a moving friendship with a Native American woman.  By the time the reader sees the development of the Sundance Kid's politics, it too feels less powerful and more fanciful.  Despite the tasteful way the author presents this part of the amorous episodes, some readers, including some Eleanor Roosevelt fans, will find these scenes troubling despite the author's claims in the notes.  Any parallels intended between Etta and Roosevelt's mutual concern for the downtrodden would have been better if the author had given more details of the intellectual and compassionate affinities shared by the two women. 

With a combined sense of history and imagination, ETTA takes the reader on a wild action-packed, adventurous ride through the emerging and often lawless West, an adventure supplemented by vignettes of other parts of American history.  Gerald Kolpan paints a fascinating portrait of the enigmatic Etta Place as a strong woman who is the ultimate spitfire, not just in her ability to wield a gun and control a horse, but in her ability to stand up for other women.  Parts of this novel such as the portraits of the Harvey Girls and the Pinkerton Agency are brilliantly detailed, showing lesser known aspects of Western history --- but then again, maybe those parts are also more imagination than historical events?   Historical fiction is, after all, fiction, but this novel would have been better if the author had given more imaginative development to the scenes where he shines the most as well as a bit more to the emotional dimension romance between Etta and the Sundance Kid.  As a debut novel, ETTA has much going for it to recommend.  ETTA is a fun, invigorating, fast-paced adventure that makes for good escapist reading that touches on all the great Western celebrities from the Wild Bunch to Annie Oakley.  Western historical fiction fans, however, might leave this book wishing the author had paid as much attention to more scenes as the finer detailed moments of this book to reach the great potential clearly shown in Gerald Koplan's debut work of historical fiction.

Publisher: Ballantine (March 2009)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Review Courtesy of Amazon Vine
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