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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pages, $27

Happily, Amy Stewart has taken a true story and magnified and embroidered it into a wonderful tale of women in a changing society in Paterson, New Jersey, around the turn of the last century. Without making her heroines, three sisters on a farm in New Jersey, appear to be preternaturally emancipated, Stewart presents three people who just did what they had to do with intelligence, grit, and courage.

The tale is told in the voice of Constance Kopp, the oldest — she is in her early thirties at the beginning of the story — of three women living on their own. It is 1914 and, not unusual for the time, they do not own an automobile. When they want to go to town, they hitch their horse up to a buggy. In high spirits one day, they arrive in downtown Paterson to do some shopping, only to be hit broadside by an auto driven by the odious owner of a cloth-dying factory, Henry Kaufman.

A harrowing tale of right versus wrong and weak versus strong begins that day. Constance and her sisters, Norma and young Fleurette, request that Henry pay for the damage done to their buggy. It is only fifty dollars, an insignificant sum for a factory owner, but Henry refuses. Instead, he and his disreputable drinking buddies begin to harass the sisters. It escalates into brick-throwing, attempted arson, and horrid threats to teenage Fleurette.

With the help of Sheriff Robert Heath, Constance attempts to make Henry pay for his crimes. Along the way, Constance meets a young woman who claims Henry is the (unwanted) father of her baby, a baby who was sent away during the time she and other workers in the factory were on strike. The baby subsequently has disappeared and the mother, Lucy, is frantic. Constance, for reasons of her own, is very sympathetic and is drawn into helping the young mother.

Stewart’s rounding out of the womens’ personalities and hard-working rural lifestyle is well done. They become real people dealing with hardships and daunting adversities. From the realities of taking care of a farm — repairing a roof, unclogging ice-bound pipes, growing carrots, chopping wood, making do — to facing an uncertain future because of their dwindling savings, the Kopp sisters are shown to be resilient and idiosyncratically clever.

MBTB star!

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