When Constance Kopp’s family buggy gets run off the road by a silk mogul’s automobile, Constance isn’t out for revenge. As an unmarried woman living with her two sisters in 1914, she’s only interested in getting her buggy’s damages paid for. Too bad the silk mogul turns out to be a drunken louse, who definitely does not care about common decency. After all, he may or may not have kidnapped his own child.
This is the set-up for Amy Stewart‘s captivating romp of a novel, Girl Waits With Gun, inspired by the real-life adventures of sisters Constance, Norma and Fleurette Kopp. Narrated by the 35-year-old Constance, who’s bored by life on the sisters’ lonesome New Jersey farm, Girl follows the sisters’ numerous skirmishes with the aforementioned mogul, Henry Kaufman. When Kaufman doesn’t pony up, he quickly starts terrorizing the sisters—who refuse to give in. Their subsequent battle is as suspenseful as it is lively.
Misfit Constance already knows she’s tough, but even she is surprised by the depth of her dedication to justice. Stewart illustrates this growing awareness subtly and skillfully, eschewing soap opera-style breakdowns in favor of depicting Constance’s tentative exploration of the world beyond her farm. Her blossoming into a modern, worldly woman—and shedding of the shameful secret that has haunted her whole life—provides the novel’s spine.
In an intriguing choice, Stewart never really lets Kaufman come into focus as a villain; he’s more of a menacing presence, or maybe a metaphor for the greater threat of men who will never see women as equals. So Stewart fills his silence with the Kopp sisters’ lively banter. Complete opposites Norma and Fleurette scrape and snipe at one another, yet their bond still feels lived-in and warm. You never doubt where their loyalties really lie. Stewart’s emphasis on women’s voices and relationships is refreshing, as is her quick dismissal of any hints of a love interest. Constance and her sisters provide the novel’s gravity, while the men are allowed only to orbit.
The fact that Constance Kopp actually lived just makes this story that much more tantalizing. (The title is even taken from one of the many contemporary news stories about Kopp and her sisters’ face-off against Kaufman.) Stewart, known for her non-fiction work on botany, embellishes aspects of this crumb of forgotten history but mostly sticks to the already-fascinating facts. At the risk of spoilers for real-life Constance, her name frequently popped up in the 1910s and ’20s New York Times under headlines of daring exploits, including receiving a pair of gold-plated handcuffs and rescuing an escaped drowning prisoner. With any luck, fictional Constance will be back to tackle those adventures soon.
With its well-developed characters as well as its evocative conjuration of what 1900s America felt and looked like for women, Girl Waits With Gun is a thrilling yet substantive read for any feminist. It’s the assured work of an author who wanted to do justice to the headstrong pioneer who came before her.
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