Sisters doing it for themselves
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.