Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Etta by Gerald Kolpan

I received Etta from Katie at Ballantine Books last fall. It sat on my shelf looking at me time and time again when I went to grab a new book to read. With its release date coming up soon, I decided I needed to get to it pronto! I wasn't putting it off for any particular reason. I actually thought I would like it when I started it, and that was definitely the case! I just needed to be in the right mood for it.

Etta is part western, historical fiction, romance, and adventure story. Etta Place really existed, but little is known about her. There are rumors that she was part of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang and possibly the Sundance Kid's girlfriend. But that's about it. No one knows where she was born or where her grave is. Kolpan takes this little information and adds a large dose of creativity and imagination to create the story of her life. As Kolpan writes it, at the age of 18 Lorinda Reese Jameson found herself an orphan after her father killed himself. As a child, he taught her to ride a horse and shoot a gun. All he bequeathed her was large sums of debt and danger from The Hand (the Sicilian mob). Her lawyer secured her a new identity (based on the location of her family estate): Etta Place. She worked as a Harvey girl until an unfortunate incident where an awful man tried to take advantage of her. She killed him in self defense but was convicted of murder and nearly ended up with a rope around her neck. She was saved by a couple friends who turned out to be outlaws. This begins the journey of Etta Place.

It is difficult to summarize this book. So much takes place throughout the course of Etta's life. Through the book, we see the love story between Etta and Harry Longbaugh (otherwise known as the Sundance Kid). Kolpan paints a picture of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang as passive thieves trying hard not to kill anyone needlessly (with the exception of one member Kid Curry who was very violent). The image created is one of a gang of Robin Hoods. They only steal from people who are well off and can afford to lose their material possessions and money. Etta never took anyone's wedding rings or heirloom jewelry. Kolpan also turns Harry into a Socialist spouting off about how the captialists were making all the money and not diseminating it back down to the less fortunate. In the end Etta and Harry move to South America and start a commune where they use all their money to help those less fortunate get back on their feet.

There's actually more to the story, but I'll leave some surprises for you. There was a lot of information packed into this book, but its short chapters and newspaper articles/tidbits thrown in helped move the book along quickly. I worked at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles for nearly three years. Part of their mission was to collect historical artifacts west of the Mississippi. I worked with countless objects from the Frontier including artifacts from William F. Cody otherwise known as Buffalo Bill. Kolpan's book spends a little time with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and I can't tell you how fun it was to see this world created after having worked with objects from it!

In general, even if you are not a fan of Westerns, this book may appeal to you. It is much more historical fiction than cowboys and indians. I think maybe the last third of the book gets a little long and could have been a bit shorter. But overall, I enjoyed this book. There is an author's note at the end stating that Kolpan made up quite a bit of the story or took what was known about each person's personality and emphasized it a bit. He's done a great job of "creating" this world and really bringing it to life.

Etta hits bookshelves March 24, 2009. Fans of early 20th century historical fiction should be sure to check it out!


bookfool said...

Ditto! Its been sitting here for a while and I've got to get to it. Now that I know its good, its so much easier to get going!

I enjoyed your review, its very good!

Gerald Kolpan said...


Thank you so,so much for the generous review of my novel, ETTA.

Havng someone so knowlegeable about Buffalo Bill like my work makes it doubly sweet.

I hope you'll visit the ETTA website. It's a lot of fun and historically oriented people like you really enjoy it. Don't forget to play the song.

Also hope you'll publish this review a few other spots.

Many thanks again.
Gerald Kolpan