Monday, March 16, 2009

'Etta' By Gerald Kolpan

'Etta' By Gerald Kolpan

Reviewed by Caroline Berson
Philadelphia Inquirer

Our heroine is dead before the tale can begin. The opening pages deliver the obituary of Lorinda Jameson Carr, an 80-year-old woman remembered for her philanthropic work and sharpshooting skills. Her adult life is well chronicled by the New York Herald Tribune, but "little is known of Mrs. Carr's early life."

And thus our story begins, not as a novel built on suspense, but rather on bringing to life a little-known member of the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang and capturing the mood of the Wild West.

According to historians, Etta Place was either a prostitute or a schoolteacher who, through unknown means, was rumored to be the girlfriend or wife of Harry Longabaugh, alias the Sundance Kid.

Gerald Kolpan's version of history opens on a gentleman's farm in 1898 Philadelphia, where Lorinda Jameson, celebrated debutante and daring horseback rider, lives with her alcoholic father. Lorinda's lifestyle disintegrates when her father commits suicide rather than deal with his growing debt.

In a meeting with the family lawyer, Lorinda learns that one of her father's lenders is a notorious Sicilian gang.

"Your poor father had been laid to considerable debt by a cabal of gamblers, unscrupulous and desperate men who preyed upon your father's weakness for horse betting, no doubt with his enthusiastic support," the lawyer says. "Like the remainder of his creditors, these villains have contacted this office and informed me of their need to be remunerated . . . [or] they shall be forced into actions that will mean suffering for any whom your father loved in life."

To escape their promised revenge, Lorinda accepts a new name - Miss Etta Place - and travels west to Colorado, where she serves travelers as a Harvey Girl waitress. Etta soon realizes that her incomparable beauty attracts unwanted advances and is forced to extremes to defend her pure character. She escapes to "Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming territory. Somewhere between the beginning of nowhere and the end of nothing."

Here she finds herself in the company of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Kolpan first mentions the well-known outlaws by including a wanted poster in his narrative, one that identifies their criminal occupations as "bank robber and highwaymen, train robber, cattle and horse thief." These stark depictions are later softened by introducing different perspectives. Kolpan breaks away from his journalism training to reveal the souls in his novel through diary entries, newspaper articles, personal letters, and straight third-person narrative.

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