three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-EttaGerald Kolpan is an Emmy Award–winning television reporter in Philadelphia. His writing credits include articles in national newspapers. Etta is his first novel.

The Story: Very little is known about Etta Place, the beautiful Wild West outlaw who, in the 1900s, won the heart of Harry Longbaugh, also known as the Sundance Kid. In this fictional account, Kolpan weaves together a tale of Etta’s adventurous life as it might have been. Born Lorinda Jameson, Etta was the pampered daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia banker. When her father commits suicide rather than facing debts backed by the Mafia, Etta changes her name, flees her home, and becomes one of the "Harvey Girls," frontier waitresses known for their moral character. A series of misadventures soon forces Etta into a fateful encounter with the notorious Wild Bunch Gang and into an unforgettable Western love story.
Random House. 336 Pages. $25. ISBN: 0345503686

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Etta … seems like a dime novel, and that’s meant as a compliment. … It’s rollicking, rambunctious, rip-roaring, rootin’-tootin’ and other fun words that begin with the letter ‘R.’" Mary Wisniewski

Dallas Morning News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The form of Etta consists of old newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and simple narration, with many of the facts fabricated. It’s mostly escapist reading, though you will pick up some real history, too." Anne Morris

Denver Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Etta, at times, comes off as a little too modern for her times. … Generally, though, it serves her in good stead, and the result is a fast-paced adventure story, replete with gunfights and train robberies and the romance of the Cowboy West." Robin Vidimos

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The resulting book should be classified more as entertainment than first-rate literary fiction. … . As a storyteller, however, Kolpan clearly knows what he’s doing, and his clever use of fictitious newspaper reports, letters, and diary entries acts as a narrative pacemaker." Robert Cremins

Philadelphia Inquirer 3 of 5 Stars
"[H]is ultimate portrayal of Etta falls short: Her beauty is too overwhelming, her character too pure, and her skills unmatched. … In short, Kolpan’s version of Etta is perfect, and perfect isn’t interesting." Caroline Berson

USA Today 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he biggest risk that Kolpan takes—the one that perhaps undermines his story—is that all his fictional tinkering ends up less intriguing than the real mystery of the real Etta’s identity and fate." Don Oldenburg

Critical Summary

Kolpan’s novel is light, entertaining fare—the type of book one grabs on the way to a relaxing vacation. Several critics were diverted by Etta’s encounters with various historical figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Leon Trotsky, Pinkerton detective Charles Siringo, and Annie Oakley, even if some thought that Etta herself wasn’t fully believable. Others argued that the sheer number of characters was implausible and "pushing the limits of credibility" (USA Today). Additionally, while some critics claimed that Kolpan’s use of news articles, diary entries, and letters gave the novel an authentic feel, USA Today maintained that the "stiff turn-of-the-century style of prose" was an unwelcome distraction. Overall, however, critics hailed Etta as a worthy debut, particularly for readers interested in fast-paced adventure stories set in the Wild West.