Sis­ters do­ing it for them­selves

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

The small in­dus­trial city of Paterson, New Jer­sey, has a sur­pris­ing num­ber of con­nec­tions with au­thors who have lived there or writ­ten about it: William Car­los Wil­liams, Allen Gins­berg, Jack Ker­ouac, Nel­son Al­gren, John Updike, Junot Diaz. It’s the set­ting for the triple mur­der in No­bel lau­re­ate Bob Dy­lan’s Hur­ri­cane, his protest song about boxer Ru­bin Carter. Film­maker Jim Jar­musch, who has had a long-time in­ter­est in Paterson’s his­tory of silk-weav­ing mills, work­ers’ strikes and im­mi­grant pres­ence, has made Paterson, fea­tur­ing a poetry-writ­ing bus driver. And this year has also seen the pub­li­ca­tion of two nov­els by Amer­i­can au­thor Amy Ste­wart set in Paterson and other New Jer­sey lo­ca­tions in 1914-15.

Ste­wart’s en­tic­ingly ti­tled Girl Waits with Gun and Lady Cop Makes Trou­ble are the open­ers in a pro­jected se­ries based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of three real-life women, the Kopp sis­ters. The el­dest was one of the first Amer­i­can women em­ployed in law en­force­ment du­ties that ex­tended be­yond serv­ing as a ma­tron in a jail or asy­lum. And later all three sis­ters worked in their own pri­vate de­tec­tive agency.

These nov­els fol­low a suc­cess­ful run of six non­fic­tion ti­tles in which Ste­wart brought her up­beat style to nat­u­ral his­tory, pro­gress­ing through top­ics as un­promis­ing as earth­worms and toxic plants to her 2013 New York Times best­seller The Drunken Botanist about the plants that form the ba­sis of al­co­holic drinks.

Through­out, Ste­wart main­tained the per­sona of an in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­quis­i­tive am­a­teur equally pre­pared to roll up her sleeves and de­fer to re­spected au­thor­ity. Now she is bring­ing a com­pa­ra­ble ap­proach to her fact-and-fic­tion hy­brid nov­els. With a light touch and droll hu­mour, she crafts sus­tained plots out of ma­te­rial that in less skil­ful hands might re­main as dead as a post-ex­ploita­tion silk­worm.

In Chekho­vian fash­ion Ste­wart’s sis­ters oc­cupy a pro­vin­cial farm­house, hav­ing left Brook­lyn a few years ear­lier. They are ed­u­cated, mildly dis­con­tented and run­ning out of money. There is also at least one sig­nif­i­cant se­cret in their back­story. As the el­dest sis­ter, nar­ra­tor Con­stance Kopp wants to gen­er­ate enough in­come for the trio to re­main liv­ing in­de­pen­dently of their ir­ri­tat­ing older brother. Mid­dle sis­ter Norma at­tends to the farm work, her pen­chant for read­ing news re­ports aloud and clip­ping amus­ing head­lines serv­ing Ste­wart’s need to in­di­cate the so­cial con­text of the sis­ters’ do­mes­tic­ity. Home-schooled teenager Fleurette is flighty, cre­ative and at­trac­tive.

The agent of dis­rup­tion in the first novel, Girl Waits With Gun, is a silk-dye­ing fac­tory heir named Henry Kauf­man. His ca­reer­ing mo­tor car slams into the sis­ters’ horse-drawn buggy at a Paterson in­ter­sec­tion. Con­stance’s re­quests for the cost of re­pairs pro­voke in­tim­i­dat­ing mes­sages from Kauf­man’s hench­men.

For­tu­nately for the sis­ters, the con­sci­en­tious and pro­gres­sive Sher­iff Robert Heath (an­other char­ac­ter adapted from real life) takes an in­ter­est in their wel­fare, and soon vis­it­ing law en­force­ment of­fi­cers are sub­sti­tut­ing for Chekhov’s vis­it­ing soldiers. No courtships en­sue but there are muted in­ter­changes. “Sher­iff Heath … leaned down to of­fer his hand to me. I didn’t need it, but I took it.”

Heath is aware of the Kauf­man thugs’ com­plic­ity in liquor smug­gling, il­licit gam­bling and ex­tor­tion rack­ets, a la the Black Hand gangs of some Ital­ian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties. And the novel’s sub­plot fo­cuses on the reper­cus­sions of the 1913 Paterson silk strike for mis­treated fe­male work­ers and their young chil­dren.

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