Readers who’ve seen the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid will remember Katherine Ross’ portrayal of Etta Place, Robert Redford’s pretty girlfriend. The real Etta Place turns out to be even more intriguing, for no one knows much about her—not even whether she was really Sundance’s girlfriend. In his rollicking debut novel, Gerald Kolpan imagines the life of this mystery woman, placing her in a time and place filled with colorful characters.
Kolpan’s Etta is from Philadelphia, the motherless daughter of a swindler who dies owing too many people too much money. Because some of those people are shady, her father’s lawyer changes her name from Lorinda Reese Jameson to Etta Place and puts her on a train to Chicago. She moves on to Colorado, where she becomes one of the celebrated Harvey Girls and befriends the extremely taciturn Laura Bullion, one of Butch and Sundance’s gang. Bullion helps Etta escape after she blows away a rich psychopath who tries to rape her, and it’s in Wyoming territory, at a place called Hole-in-the-Wall, where Etta’s romance with Sundance begins.
Kolpan clearly loves his wayward heroine, who’s incredibly beautiful, tall, smart and cultured. As with a number of works of new fiction, Kolpan’s Etta interacts with real historical figures. Charlie Siringo of the Pinkertons is out to get her; she saves the life of Teddy Roosevelt while impersonating Annie Oakley (“A bully adventure!” he crows); the president’s shy and insecure niece Eleanor becomes a friend. Kolpan is also good at taking the reader back to the sights, sounds and smells of the early 20th century. He describes the vileness of pre-Harvey Girls railroad food, the threadbare carpet of a dingy brownstone, the flowery but sincere way one lady or gentleman addressed another. When Butch and Sundance finally buy the farm in Bolivia in 1909, the resourceful Etta fades from history, but doesn’t fade away. Like Rose in Titanic, she goes on to lead a rich and eventful life. Etta is indeed a bully adventure!
Arlene McKanic finds adventure in Jamaica, New York.