Girl Waits With Gun is billed as the “forgotten true story of one of the US’s first female deputy sheriffs”, and what a to-do has been made about Constance Kopp. As Amy Stewart writes it, Constance and her sisters don’t quite fit the mould in their small New York State town in the early 20th Century. She towers over most men (shock!), has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs (horror!), and stands up for herself and her small little family when they become a target of a ruthless factory owner (outrage!).
One morning Constance and her isolated sisters are run down in their buggy on their way into town, and the shock of seeing her little sister hurt causes Constance to stand up to the driver who is a big-shot factory owner in town. The dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets and threats as he unleashes his gang on their farm. Seeing an opportunity to finally put away the gang, the sheriff enlists Constance’s assistance and it turns out she has knack for outwitting the criminal element. Stewart is an exuberant writer and the story is told at a playful, rollicking pace.
But in truth, Constance is nowhere near as shocking or exciting as the premise makes her out to be. This is pretty disappointing, as the blurb promises so much: a self-aware, tounge-in-cheek story perhaps – one where we always know how it is going to end – but one of a revolutionary woman in her time. This is not the case, as Constant is full of and surrounded by ceaseless questioning and doubt. It is so tiring to continually hear what a woman’s place is (where Constance is not, of course), how weak she is (always when she is showing strength), how the sisters need taking care of (just after she has saved them all yet again). It is an internal doubt as well, monotonously battering her down and holding her back. Perhaps my expectations are too high, but surely we can expect a little more confidence and action from America’s first female deputy sheriff?
It is a joy to have a female-driven whodunnit-type story. Constance is not just a heroine of the tale but the hero, leading the investigation and the fight, leaving the following to others. It’s refreshing. And if this book really has catapulted Constance Knopp from forgotten historical anecdote to contemporary historical fiction legend then that is only a good thing. But it could have been more, so much more. Yes, the gendered oppression of Constance and her sisters is historically accurate, but as a reader it is exhausting to have our lead reminded yet again of her place. Yes, she was repressed, but it is pointlessly tiring for a reader to have their hero regularly belittled and made small. That does not make a hero.
Am I wanting too much from my tales? I dived into this story wanting a feminist hero but found the characterisation lazy and the heroism small and apologising for itself. Maybe Stewart has done this all deliberately, making inspired-by-history fiction even more historically accurate, but it damages the story as a whole. Girl Waits With Gun promises so much and breaks my feminist heart a bit when it delivers so little.