The sketchy details of the life of Etta Place, outlaw and paramour of Harry "Sundance Kid" Longbaugh, are imaginatively filled in by first-time novelist Kolpan in this winning tale of the Wild West. After her wealthy father's disgrace and demise, Etta departs Philadelphia society and heads west to become a Harvey Girl on the railroad in Colorado, where a series of misadventures leads her to the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. Romanced by Longbaugh and the fugitive lifestyle, Place earns an integral part in the gang through her shooting and riding skills as well as her beauty and sophistication. Pursued by the police, Pinkertons, the Black Hand and rival desperado Kid Curry, Etta and the Sundance Kid make their way across the country, diving from one daring adventure to another. The novel is not without its flaws: Etta's friendship with a young Eleanor Roosevelt and her encounters with other luminaries can seem precious, and her proto-feminism feels too canned. But the wide-screen drama of Etta's life makes these choices forgivable, and Kolpan's snappy storytelling makes it impossible not to want to ride along as the characters careen toward their tragic ends.
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Etta Place was not only the paramour of the infamous Sundance Kid. Knowing her way around horses and guns, she became a key member of Butch Cassidy's notorious outlaw gang, the Wild Bunch. But her name was an alias, and no one knows where she really came from. Emmy Award-winning Philadelphia television reporter Kolpan steps into the historical void, penning a novel that speculates on Etta's life. He gives her a privileged Philadelphia background interrupted by family scandal and sends her out West as a Harvey Girl. But when her good looks get her into trouble, she falls in with the Wild Bunch. Hiding out at the encampment of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang in Wyoming Territory, she ends up a one-woman banker for the group. Later, she goes undercover in New York City, becoming dear friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and working as a stand-in for Annie Oakley in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. Incorporating Etta's diary entries, telegraph messages, and news clippings into the narrative, Kolpan vividly tells a tale that is both outrageous and entertaining, sure to be compared favorably with Larry McMurtry's novels of the Wild West. [See Prepub Alert, LJ11/1/08.]
Keddy Ann Outlaw
Emmy Award-winning TV journalist Kolpan extends his resume impressively with this picaresque debut novel, focused on "the woman" who knew Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Born Lorinda Jameson and forced to flee her Pennsylvania home when Sicilian "Black Hand" gangsters plot revenge for her late father's gambling defaults, she moves to the West, first working as a Harvey Girl waiting tables at a Colorado railroad restaurant. Thereafter, the plot thickens every several pages, as the fugitive beauty now known as Etta Place turns her gun-toting and equestrian skills to violence, dispatching a would-be rapist, then hightailing it to Wyoming, where she falls for charming bad man Harry Longbaugh (aka "Sundance"); joins the notorious Hole in the Wall gang; and accompanies an ill-gotten treasure to safety in New York. There Etta encounters a virginal Eleanor Roosevelt (who, soon enough, becomes her beloved "Little Nell"), and she joins Colonel William Cody's Wild West show (where she subs for the departed Annie Oakley). Are there more adventures yet to come? Yes there are. Reconnecting with "Sundance," Etta joins him in Argentina, where Harry's newfound revolutionary ardor does not dissuade him from attempting one last robbery. Consequently, Etta returns to respectability, fortune and the matured and muted love of "Little Nell," who has been reinvented-as First Lady. Technically, there's too much muchness in this sprawling narrative, which is festooned with newspaper stories, letters (Harry's, sent to his respectable dad, are particularly delightful), journal entries and communiques detailing investigations conducted by busy Pinkerton agents. But any reader who cherishes the beguiling talltales spun by such masters as Charles Portis and Thomas Berger is unlikely to object. Few will have any more success resisting Etta than do the many men, women and other critters encountered during her memorable adventures. Great fun and-beneath the hijinks-a surprisingly substantial novel. Agent: Katharine Cluverius/ICM
Read an Excerpt
Among all the other things her father liked to call her, he could now add “thief.”
He had always had pet names for her. He would refer to her as “lamb” and “angel” and “picky,” which he explained was short for “pick of the litter.” When he was the worse for drink, he had other names for her. If the spirits had made him happy, he called her “pharo,” after his favorite game of cards; “lucky” if he was winning. If the whiskey had turned him maudlin, the tears running down his cheeks, he would sometimes confuse the girl with her mother. “Anna,” he would cry, “Anna, you’ve come back,” though the fantasized return would bring no comfort to him. When demon alcohol turned him angry he would accuse her of being disloyal or spoiled. He would even say she was never wanted.
And always in the sober light of morning, he would beg her forgiveness; always she would grant it.
Over the years, she had learned to dismiss both the drink and the words. He was her father, and she preferred to think of him only at his best: the father who had taught her what he knew, the father who, she became convinced, had loved her as best he could.
He had bought Bellerophon in Virginia only the year before from a genteel man named Mr. R. C. Campbell. A month prior to the purchase, the breeder had stood helplessly by as the stallion bit and kicked two of his stablemates to death. Campbell had sold the horse to Father at a bargain price, stating that he was “doing the Lord’s work by lowering the tariff on a devil.” Less than five minutes after the deal was struck, Father was astride the giant animal, digging his spurs into the fat sides and galloping across the green meadow, his crop driving the demon toward everhigher speeds. Whooping and hollering, he had disappeared from sight for over an hour, and when he finally returned the horse was covered in foam and he himself drenched in sweat. As the big man dismounted, the stallion reared and attempted to trample him. Father reached up and grabbed the bridle of the beast, pulling hard and laughing. With the help of half a dozen grooms, he managed to return the stallion to his paddock, complimenting the astonished Campbell on the quality of his stock.
“This devil will do fine for me,” he told the breeder. “Either he will kill me or I will kill him. In either situation, the world will be minus one more ne’er- do- well.”
Now, as Lorinda rode Bellerophon through the fields she knew so well, the stallion felt ready to rebel beneath her; and so she rode him close, her mouth nearly kissing the black of his mane. It had been the work of months to get this far. She had waited until dusk every day, when she knew her father would be in the library of the main house, seated beneath his hunting trophies and too drunk to hear or interfere. As they raced across the lawns of the estate, she murmured as if to calm the horse, trying to allay both her own fears and his instincts to murder. The wind’s tears welling in her eyes, she flew with him, her auburn hair strung behind her in near-perfect imitation of his swirling tail, her stomach vibrating with thrill and fear.
The hours in the saddle that began with her first pony, the equestrian competitions she had begun winning at the age of six, and all Father had taught her had led to this moment. As she plucked the Winchester 94 from her saddle, the long gun buzzed with an electricity that seemed to flow through her arms toward trigger and stock. With the strength born of a life on horseback, she clamped her legs to the leather of the hunting saddle and, using only her thighs to guide him, maneuvered the demon around the circle of four targets.
The first shot was wide of the center, landing in the red area of the target a centimeter or two from the dark bull’s- eye. She kicked Bellerophon nearly deep enough to draw blood, battling him into position, and then fired from fifty feet. The black of the second target exploded, the paper shredding into ribbons.
With the stallion dead between the next two targets, she twisted her body first to one side of his mane and then the other, destroying the dark centers of the two final bull’s- eyes. With the last report of the rifle, she sheathed her weapon just as Bellerophon reared in an attempt to shake her from his back. With no time to spare she leaned into his mane, holding fast to the thick leather reins. Facing the wind, a large dollop of his foam brushed her breast and neck. Now she could hear his front hooves regain the ground and fall into a gallop. The calming speeches were gone. She cursed and commanded the monster, her message clear: It would take a better man than him to break her heart.
A fourth shot rang out, soft and distant. For a moment she looked down at her side, straining to determine if the Winchester was still sheathed in her saddle; if somehow in her excitement the weapon had come undone and fired. But the shot had echoed from a distance. It vibrated inside her with a menacing sustain. It was, she remembered later, a sound to change a life.
She pulled hard on the reins of the bridle, causing the Spanish bit to slash hard against the stallion’s mouth and tongue. Nearly exhausted, she managed to turn him to the right and toward one of the hedgerows that crossed the estate. Her eyes blurred with tears and sweat, she dug her heels deep into each black haunch. As Bellerophon landed hard on the far side of the hedge she swore at him again and again, spurring him to higher speed.
When she reached the house, the chief groom looked up in terror at the sight of the hell horse in hands not those of his master. Covered with foam, his tongue bleeding from the bit, Bellerophon slowed down only long enough for the young woman to jump from his saddle and race toward the door of the great house. Snorting and pawing, the big black kicked high in the air as the grooms garlanded him in lariats. At the entrance to her father’s study, the housekeeper stood in the girl’s way. “No, miss,” she implored. “Please! Please don’t go in, for the love of the Savior, Miss Lorinda! For our Savior, miss!”
The girl was tall and strong and dwarfed the tiny Scotswoman. She gently but firmly placed a hand on each of the housekeeper’s shoulders and in one hard motion moved her from the door.
Her father had been in a sitting position when she heard the shot’s echo and so he remained. Graham David Jameson was as always elegantly dressed. His collar was pure white, offsetting the subtle blue stripe of the shirtfront below. For this occasion, he had chosen a dressing gown of mandarin scarlet with oriental symbols embroidered in its silk. The Navy Colt revolver hung still in his left hand beside his sharply pleated charcoal trousers. His face bore no expression, neither of peace nor horror, grace nor curse. The left temple, where the bullet entered, was neatly penetrated. The right, where the slug had made its exit, was a red mass stretching to the shoulder, punctuated here and there by the gray of brain and the cream- white of bone.
Lorinda’s pale face became a mask, unreadable and plain. She stood for a long moment before the weeping servants and then, with one swift motion, removed a flowered and fringed cloth from a nearby table and covered her father, head to waist. She was in charge now. There were no older brothers; no married sisters to lean upon. It would not do to fall apart before the retainers who had served her father for so long, tolerating his benders, pretending that the women in his private apartments of a Saturday morning were the sort worthy of a Jameson.
Lorinda glanced sidelong at the housekeeper. “Mrs. Reeves,” she said, “I will ask you to kindly clear all the staff from this room, as I would prefer my father neither to cause upset nor to be made a spectacle by his current condition. If you will do this, please, I will telephone the police and in due course engage the services of Kirk and Nice.”
At the mention of the venerable undertakers, the Scotswoman crossed herself, then wiped the tears from her eyes and complied. The room was shortly empty of all souls save the daughter of the deceased. Lorinda picked up the newly installed telephone, asked for the operator, and only then turned in hot tears from the gory husk that had been David Jameson. Outside the lead casement window, Bellerophon reared one final time before the grooms led him to his stall. As Lorinda fell to her knees, all she could hear was the drumming of his hooves, threatening to shatter the paddock door.
Then, through her tears, she noticed for the first time, nearly hidden in the upper corner of the desk blotter, the small sheet of monogrammed notepaper. It was upon this rich pure- white stock that Father had always sent the most personal of his messages. On it she had read his congratulations for every ribbon won at a horse show, every fine grade earned at school, every expression of gratitude at her forbearance, every apology for this or that weakness.
Lorinda reached for the note. The paper felt more like cloth in her fingers, so fine was its weave. But now, instead of some last comfort, its message led only to a last bewildering rage. My dearest Lorinda, it began, the greeting followed only by the single letter: I.
Below were two marks. One was red, a spot with a long tail that ran to the paper’s edge. The other, a gray streak, ended in a sudden burst, like the period on a sentence her father would never write.
From the Hardcover edition.