Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Girl Waits With Gun is a historical fiction about the first female deputy sheriff in the USA and her two sisters. It is set just before the outbreak of WWI and just after a major strike by silk-factory workers. It is absolutely delightful, with a heroine who is tall, loud, smart, and deeply protective of her family.

The narrator and protagonist of the book is Constance Kopp. She lives in a farmhouse with her older sister, Norma, and younger sister, Fleurette. Norma is cranky and introverted, and trains pigeons to deliver messages (so far, they only deliver messages from herself to herself, but she hopes to expand). Fleurette is seventeen and the baby of the family. She loves fashion, sewing, and dancing, and she craves the freedom that her protective sisters are reluctant to give her.

The story begins when Constance and Fleurette take their buggy to town and are struck by an automobile owned by Henry Kaufman. Constance bills Henry for damages, but finds that Henry, who runs a silk factory and is rich and powerful, refuses to pay up. In the course of trying to get $50 for the broken buggy, Constance finds herself under threat from Henry and his goons and trying to find the baby of one of Henry’s employees. The local police officer, Sheriff Heath, teaches Constance and her sisters how to use a revolver, and while he and his deputies take turns guarding her house Constance sets out to find the missing baby.

This book does a great job with portraying an unusual family without getting too cutesy. Their eccentricities are always grounded by real motivations and real problems. They show great affection for each other but also irritation, as befits sisters who have spent their entire lives together. Their relationships are complex, but relatable. Even their brother, who initially comes off as sexist and controlling, gets to show softer sides of his personality, largely thanks to the influence of his wife, who is blessed with both empathy and common sense. — most of the characters specialize in one or the other (that is, they are good at understanding feelings or they are good at practical issues) with all the problems one might expect to result from such an imbalance.

I am sad to say that there is no romance in the book, with the exception of some glimmers between Constance and the very married Sheriff Heath. The story is closely based on the real-life Constance Kopp. The entire story is essentially true, with the exception of the subplot involving the missing baby, and even the title comes from a real newspaper headline about the case. The real-life Constance never married, so the fictional one remains single as well, at least so far. As real-life Constance said:

“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”

I loved the historical setting, and I especially loved the character of Constance. While Constance is a very different person from our beloved Miss Fisher of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and the historical period is pre-war instead of post-war, the book gives a similar vibe as the TV show. Thanks to Fleurette there’s plenty of fashion, and Sheriff Heath’s admiration for Constance reminded me of Miss Fisher and Jack. The dialogue is fast and funny, and between Constance and Norma there’s plenty of deadpan snark.

Constance’s desire to protect the farm for her family and her simultaneous desire to make a life for herself was a relatable internal and external conflict. As a physically imposing, take-no-prisoners woman, she doesn’t fit in well in town, and as someone who craves excitement, independence, and purpose she can’t be content on the farm with her sisters. I loved her secret (and true) backstory and her determination to protect her family and to help others.

One of the elements of the story is that the sisters are grieving for their mother, who was protective to the point of keeping them very isolated. Their mother taught them not to help others on the theory that if someone asks for help it must be a trick. Much of Constance’s character development involves overcoming this and learning that “people ask for help all the time.” In a beautiful passage, Constance says that she wishes to give Fleurette

…the realization that we have to be a part of the world in which we live. We don’t scurry away when we’re in trouble, or when someone else is. We don’t run and hide.

It’s a beautiful message that was needed then and that is certainly needed now.

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Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart

September 1, 2015

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