Girl Waits with Gun

by Amy Stewart

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Amy Stewart, who lives in Eureka, Calif., with her rare book dealer husband, Scott Brown, made her reputation with six nonfiction books about the natural world, including four New York Times bestsellers: The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential. But in 2015 she hit it big – very big – with Girl Waits with Gun, a novel based on the real life of Constance Kopp of New Jersey, who became one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs in the early 1900s. The book, a national Indie bestseller, was named to many notable book lists, including  a New York Times Editors’ Choice;  NPR, Publishers Weekly and Bookpage  Best Books of 2015; People’s “Best Books of the Fall;” Washington Post’s “Notable Fiction Books of 2015;”  USA Today’s “New and Noteworthy;”  Cosmopolitan’s “24 New Books to Read this Fall” and  Publishers Marketplace Buzz Book of 2015, Fall/Winter, among others.

What is this book about?

Constance Kopp is very tall, content with being what they used to call a “spinster” and living as though in hiding with her two sisters on a farm in rural New Jersey. Then one day in 1914, a local wealthy but loutish businessman who owns a silk factory makes the mistake of smashing into the Kopp sisters’ buggy with his car and then makes the further mistake of refusing to pay for the damage. The resulting dispute turns ugly, and Constance finds she must fight back with the help of a sympathetic sheriff, and also face up to some deep family secrets.

Why you’ll like it:

Constance is a tough, feisty, often funny woman with immense appeal. And the fact that she was a real person only makes things better. No wonder many reviewers said they hoped this novel was the first of a series.

Here are some thoughts about the book that Amy Stewart shared in an interview by Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train:

“It started with one newspaper clipping. I was writing about a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman for my previous book, The Drunken Botanist. I found an article from 1914 about someone named Henry Kaufman who ran his car into a buggy being driven by these three women, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp. I liked the Kopp sisters immediately, so for one afternoon I forgot all about the book I was writing, and kept digging.

“. . . But there was no book, no Wikipedia page, nothing except these hundred year-old newspaper stories.

“So I dug up as much as I could from the papers, courthouse documents, and genealogical records on The smartest thing I did was to hire a genealogist in New Jersey who knew exactly where to go to find out more. Thanks to her, I got birth certificates, wills, and even land deeds, all of which told me so much more than I could have imagined. But yes, you’re right—I really had to chip this one out of the historical record myself. It definitely made the research more exciting—I was uncovering family secrets!

“. . . I did think about writing it as nonfiction, but there were all these gaps in the record that frustrated me. I had no idea what they were doing for months at a time. Also, I couldn’t say for sure why they did some of the things they did. What drove Henry Kaufman to attack these women? And what led Constance to stand on a street corner with a gun in her handbag to defend her family? I mean, who does that in 1914? Who does that today, even? I loved being able to fill in those blanks and to explore all the small, intimate moments in their lives that sometimes go missing in nonfiction.

“. . . The Kopps are very real to me and their opinions matter a great deal. If I could somehow travel through time and hand them my book, I think Norma would arch an eyebrow and write corrections in the margin, Fleurette would demand that all the parts about her be read aloud over and over, and Constance would just shake her head, lean forward, and tell me all the secret truths about their lives that I never could have guessed. I dream about that moment.”

What others are saying:

“Constance Kopp, the feisty heroine of Amy Stewart’s charming novel “Girl Waits With Gun,” sounds like the creation of a master crime writer. At nearly 6 feet tall, Constance is a formidable character who can pack heat, deliver a zinger and catch a criminal without missing a beat. Based on the little-known story of the real Constance Kopp, one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs, the novel is an entertaining and enlightening story of how far one woman will go to protect her family,” says The Washington Post .

“Stewart has spun a fine, historically astute novel…The sisters’ personalities flower under Stewart’s pen, contributing happy notes of comedy to a terrifying situation…And then there is Constance: Sequestered for years in the country and cowed by life, she develops believably into a woman who comes into herself, discovering powers long smothered under shame and resignation. I, for one, would like to see her return to wield them again in further installments” says The New York Times Book Review.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Hardened criminals are no match for pistol-packing spinster Constance Kopp and her redoubtable sisters in this hilarious and exciting period drama by bestseller Stewart). This is an elegant tale of suspense, mystery, and wry humor set in 1914 in Paterson, N.J. A crash between the Kopp sisters’ horse and buggy and an automobile driven by arrogant factory owner Henry Kaufman begins a disturbing cycle of menacing behavior: Kaufman refuses to pay for the buggy damage, angry and humiliated in an embarrassing confrontation with a tall, imposing, and formidable woman. Intimidation and threats of violence follow Constance’s every effort to make Kaufman pay, finally resulting in her appeal to the Bergen County Sheriff to help her collect. Sheriff Robert Heath has been itching to lock up Kaufman and his thuggish pals, and sees this as an excellent opportunity to rid Paterson of the pack of criminals. The Kopp sisters live alone on a remote farm and are taunted, burglarized, and shot at by crooks of the Black Hand gang as retaliation for involving the police and causing trouble for Kaufman. But when Constance starts to pack a revolver and doesn’t hesitate to shoot back, the game changes drastically. A surprising Kopp family secret, a kidnapped baby, and other twists consistently ratchet up the stakes throughout, resulting in an exhilarating yarn.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “In the summer of 1914 in rural New Jersey, the lives of Constance Kopp and her sisters take a dramatic turn. Their horse-drawn buggy is overturned in an accident with a motor car driven by local factory owner Henry Kaufman. Constance wants only an apology and the money owed to them for damages. Her determination in seeking justice puts her family in danger as the thuggish Kaufman begins a campaign of intimidation against them. Aided by the local sheriff, the Kopp sisters defend their home while Constance unravels a web of Kaufman family secrets and reckons with her own. In her engaging first novel, Stewart draws from the true story of the Kopp sisters . . . and creates a welcome addition to the genre of the unconventional female sleuth. Colorful, well-drawn characters come to life on the page, and historical details are woven tightly into the narrative. The satisfying conclusion sets up an opening for future Constance Kopp novels. . . .”

Kirkus’ starred review says: “. . . Stewart crafts a solid, absorbing novel based on real-life events—though they’re unusual enough to seem invented.. . . . As Constance’s first-person narrative unfolds, we see that she’s a bold woman unafraid to defy convention, determined to see justice done and to protect her family. . . . When Henry and his thuggish friends start turning up at the Kopps’ isolated farm, firing guns and sending bricks through the window bearing letters threatening all the sisters but paying particular attention to Fleurette, our tough-minded heroine is not about to be intimidated. She swears out a complaint against Henry, backed up by Sheriff Robert Heath, himself something of a rule-breaker. More threats ensue, as does the complicating factor of a young woman employed at the silk factory who bore Henry’s baby and is convinced he had a hand in the child’s mysterious disappearance. Stewart deftly tangles and then unwinds a complicated plot with nice period detail, and it’s good to see Henry finally get his comeuppance, but the real interest here is rooting for Constance as she refuses to be patronized or reduced to a dependent of her well-meaning brother, who thinks three unmarried women should naturally be living with a male protector. A final scene offers well-deserved new horizons for Constance and hints a series may be in the works. More adventures involving gutsy Constance, quietly determined Sheriff Heath, and a lively cast of supporting characters would be most welcome.”

When is it available?

The Dwight branch of the Hartford Public Library has a copy of this book.

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