Daily Book Review: 'Girl Waits with Gun'

Monday, September 7, 2015 - 6:36pm

Don’t be fooled by the conventionally beautiful, glamorous woman on the cover. Constance Kopp was an intimidating person, made much more so by the fact that she never let general rules of womanly etiquette stop her from slamming rude men against walls.

“Girl Waits with Gun” by Amy Stewart, the best-selling author of “The Drunken Botanist,” is based on the true story of one of America’s first female sheriffs in 1914. In delving into the lives of Constance and her younger sisters, Norma and Fleurette, Amy Stewart tells a tale as captivating as it is genuinely funny in its portrayal of three bewildered sisters who find themselves in a war with one of the most powerful men in their hometown.

The story begins when an automobile collides with the carriage that the three sisters are riding in. As the dust settles around the crash and a crowd gathers to watch the spectacle, Constance insists to Henry Kaufman — the cocky driver and a rich silk factory owner — and his grinning posse that they pay for the damages. Kaufman and his henchmen laugh it off and drive away, but Constance refuses to let it go. Thus begins the battle for justice.

“Girl Waits with Gun”

Amy Stewart

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Sept. 1, 2015

The sisters, who are accustomed to a quiet life on a farm away from gossipy townsfolk, are unprepared for Kaufman’s vile scare tactics, as he begins to terrorize them in an attempt to have them drop the charges. Constance finds herself working with the town sheriff to help some of Kaufman’s other victims, solving a mysterious crime in the process.  

Set in the early 20th century the novel captures the struggles that women — particularly unmarried women — had to face, especially concerning the ancient conundrum of not “having a man around the place.” Francis Kopp, their brother, is constantly trying to force them into moving in with his family, unaware of the fact that every time he interferes he complicates life for everyone.

The personalities of the three sisters complement and counteract each other so perfectly, it feels slightly self-indulgent — but because their back-and-forth sibling banter is so recognizable and natural, that it doesn’t matter. Stewart has an ear for dialogue, and Constance’s role as the narrator is so unobtrusive that her pragmatic personality shines through the lines.

The most intriguing relationship is between Constance and the sheriff, who can never be sure how Constance will surprise him next — especially after she turns out to be a sharpshooter and unafraid to manhandle men. Stewart captures the hesitancy shown on both sides as the original protector/protected relationship between the two evolves into a partnership.

I could almost feel Stewart’s knowing smile behind my shoulder as I kept turning the pages, expecting that in a story of three young women — one of whom is still in her teens and professed to be a great beauty — there’d be some romance, somewhere.

But there isn’t, and it’s great — not because of the lack of romantic storylines, or in spite of it. There’s no romance, period. The book is awesome, period. Hollywood could learn a thing or two.

One of the funniest and most well-written scenes is toward the end, when Constance answers an advertisement in the paper for female detectives in a shop; she can’t think of any job for which she is more suited, and is confident in her ability to win over her interviewer as she makes her way to the back of the store. The manager is polite to Constance, but asks her to please step aside as she is expecting a prospective employee. The manager looks around for a petite, girlish figure as Constance stands in front of her, nonplussed. When Constance informs the woman that she is the one that came for the job, the woman laughs. She needs someone unobtrusive, she tells Constance; someone of whom potential thieves wouldn’t be suspicious.

Though Constance knows that she is tall, strong and the oldest of a quirky family that mainly keeps to themselves, she never fails to underestimate how intimidated others are by her. She makes the court howl with laughter at her impatient, staccato answers to reporters’ stupid questions, as she is baffled by the people questioning her intellect because of her gender. Constance is unfailingly funny when she doesn’t mean to be, and is constantly confused when people find her so.

Stewart’s understanding of the zeitgeist of the early 20th century and her ability to convey the humor even in grim situations is seen in how Constance poses a literally physical threat to Kaufman, and no one quite knows how to deal with it, making for several funny encounters and several sulky men. At one point, Constance has Kaufman pinned to the wall, and one of the men watching shouts, “Take your hands off of her!” Everyone laughs at how ridiculous it sounds. Except Kaufman, of course, who tries very hard to look nonchalant rather than scared shitless (and fails).

“Girl Waits with Gun” left me wanting a sequel badly — but, like its heroine, it stands quite sturdily on its own two feet.