He looked up and said, in a loud, plain voice, "She's not a regular lady."
That line is uttered in the final few pages of this novel, but it does a pretty good job of summing up Constance Kopp (and her two sisters, too). Fitting, really, for "of one of the nation’s first female deputy sheriffs."
It's 1914. Constance, her older sister Norma, and much younger sister, Fleurette, live on a farm in Northern New Jersey. They're out for a drive into town in a carriage when an automobile slams into the side. Everyone escapes fairly unscathed, but rattled. Well, the ladies are rattled, the driver of the car, Henry Kaufman, and his companions are annoyed that the Kopps had the temerity to be on the road, much less be struck by a car. Constance demands payment for repairs, but Kaufman brushes her off.
But Constance is persistent and begins to annoy Kaufman, who's notorious for busting a strike the year before (and should be notorious for worse). And when Kaufman gets annoyed bad things happen -- a campaign for intimidation begins against the sisters. Soon it becomes a battle of wills -- Kaufman's arrogance and pride vs. Constance's gumption, stubbornness, and sense of right.
Constance soon learns of more of Kaufman's crimes and abuses, meeting other victims -- who warn her just how bad things can be. While she tries to withstand Kaufman's assaults, she begins to try to help other victims. At the same time, she befriends the local sheriff, one of the rare lawmen in the area who aren't beholden to Kaufman and his peers.
There's a lightness to the writing, but the subject matter is grim -- and frequently uncomfortable. Whether it's the persecution of the sisters, Constance's investigation into Kaufman's misdeeds, or Stewart exploring the events that brought the Kopps to their present circumstances, this is a hard world and it takes a certain kind of person to make it. But you wouldn't know that from the narration, really -- just as Constance maintains a proper disposition (or tries to) and manners, so does Stewart.
It would've been very easy to turn this into something it's not. Probably very tempting, too. It could've been all about the gender disparity of the time, and a feminist crusade. Or about the economics and labor conditions of the area and time -- the strikes and the way they were dealt with by the owners and police. Or any number of other things, really. And it was about those things, but primarily it was a story. A decently told story with well-constructed characters. You give me one of those, and you can throw whatever politics, economic theory, etc. you want into the mix and I'll read it. I may not buy everything you're selling, but I'll listen, and if your story and characters are good enough, I'll come back. Too many people -- particularly with historical fiction, it seems -- will do okay with the story, mess up the characters, but nail the agenda. Stewart avoided those pitfalls, and thereby served her audience and any possible point she wanted to better.
Now, while this is a novel, it appears that Stewart has done as much research as she could to make this as non-fiction as possible. I've wondered a bit about that approach, does that limit what parts of the story she tells? Which would account for some odd gaps. And if it does limit it -- is that a good or a bad thing? Or does that depend on the writer? That's probably it, for some writers, such a limit would be freeing, while others would find the restriction too much. Stewart, it seems, turns this into a strength -- matching with her previous non-fiction publications.
A fun little ride, full of historical nuggets, and a family you'd like to spend some time with. A little action, a little danger, but not a lot of violence. A pleasant mix of historical fiction and mystery. It'll work for the cozy reader, the historical fiction reader, and people who just like good stories.