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  • Etta
  • Written by Gerald Kolpan
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780345512895
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A Novel

Written by Gerald KolpanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Gerald Kolpan


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: March 24, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-51289-5
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Beautiful, elusive, and refined, Etta Place captivated the nation at the turn of the last century as she dodged the law with the Wild Bunch, led by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Her true identity and fate have remained a mystery that has tantalized historians for decades. Now, for the first time, Gerald Kolpan envisions this remarkable woman’s life in a stunning debut novel.

Kolpan imagines that Etta Place was born Lorinda Jameson, the daughter of a prominent financier, who becomes known as the loveliest of the city’s debutantes when she makes her entrance into Philadelphia society. Though her position in life is already assured, her true calling is on horseback. She can ride as well as any man and handle a rifle even better. But when a tragedy leads to a dramatic reversal of fortune, Lorinda is left orphaned, penniless, homeless, and pursued by the ruthless Black Hand mafia.

Rechristened “Etta Place” to ensure her safety, the young woman travels to the farthest reaches of civilization, working as a “Harvey Girl” waitress in Grand Junction, Colorado. There, fate intervenes once more and she again finds herself on the run from the ruthless Pinkerton Detective Agency. But this time she has company. She soon finds herself at the legendary hideout at Hole-in-the-Wall, Wyoming, where she meets the charismatic Butch Cassidy and the handsome, troubled Harry Longbaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid. Through a series of holdups and heists, Etta and Harry begin an epic and ultimately tragic romance, which will be the greatest of Etta’s life. Then, when Etta meets the young and idealistic Eleanor Roosevelt, her life is changed forever.

Blending a compelling love story, high adventure, and thrilling historical drama, Etta is an electrifying novel. With a sweeping 1900s setting, colorful storytelling, and larger-than-life characters, Etta is debut that is both captivating and unforgettable.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One

Among all the other things her father liked to call her, he could now add “thief.”

 He had always had pet names for her. He would refer to her as “lamb” and “angel” and “picky,” which he explained was short for “pick of the litter.” When he was the worse for drink, he had other names for her. If the spirits had made him happy, he called her “pharo,” after his favorite game of cards; “lucky” if he was winning. If the whiskey had turned him maudlin, the tears running down his cheeks, he would sometimes confuse the girl with her mother. “Anna,” he would cry, “Anna, you’ve come back,” though the fantasized return would bring no comfort to him. When demon alcohol turned him angry he would accuse her of being disloyal or spoiled. He would even say she was never wanted. 

And always in the sober light of morning, he would beg her forgiveness; always she would grant it. 

Over the years, she had learned to dismiss both the drink and the words. He was her father, and she preferred to think of him only at his best: the father who had taught her what he knew, the father who, she became convinced, had loved her as best he could. 

He had bought Bellerophon in Virginia only the year before from a genteel man named Mr. R. C. Campbell. A month prior to the purchase, the breeder had stood helplessly by as the stallion bit and kicked two of his stablemates to death. Campbell had sold the horse to Father at a bargain price, stating that he was “doing the Lord’s work by lowering the tariff on a devil.” Less than five minutes after the deal was struck, Father was astride the giant animal, digging his spurs into the fat sides and galloping across the green meadow, his crop driving the demon toward everhigher speeds. Whooping and hollering, he had disappeared from sight for over an hour, and when he finally returned the horse was covered in foam and he himself drenched in sweat. As the big man dismounted, the stallion reared and attempted to trample him. Father reached up and grabbed the bridle of the beast, pulling hard and laughing. With the help of half a dozen grooms, he managed to return the stallion to his paddock, complimenting the astonished Campbell on the quality of his stock. 

“This devil will do fine for me,” he told the breeder. “Either he will kill me or I will kill him. In either situation, the world will be minus one more ne’er- do- well.” 

Now, as Lorinda rode Bellerophon through the fields she knew so well, the stallion felt ready to rebel beneath her; and so she rode him close, her mouth nearly kissing the black of his mane. It had been the work of months to get this far. She had waited until dusk every day, when she knew her father would be in the library of the main house, seated beneath his hunting trophies and too drunk to hear or interfere. As they raced across the lawns of the estate, she murmured as if to calm the horse, trying to allay both her own fears and his instincts to murder. The wind’s tears welling in her eyes, she flew with him, her auburn hair strung behind her in near-perfect imitation of his swirling tail, her stomach vibrating with thrill and fear. 

The hours in the saddle that began with her first pony, the equestrian competitions she had begun winning at the age of six, and all Father had taught her had led to this moment. As she plucked the Winchester 94 from her saddle, the long gun buzzed with an electricity that seemed to flow through her arms toward trigger and stock. With the strength born of a life on horseback, she clamped her legs to the leather of the hunting saddle and, using only her thighs to guide him, maneuvered the demon around the circle of four targets. 


The first shot was wide of the center, landing in the red area of the target a centimeter or two from the dark bull’s- eye. She kicked Bellerophon nearly deep enough to draw blood, battling him into position, and then fired from fifty feet. The black of the second target exploded, the paper shredding into ribbons. 

Crack! Crack! 

With the stallion dead between the next two targets, she twisted her body first to one side of his mane and then the other, destroying the dark centers of the two final bull’s- eyes. With the last report of the rifle, she sheathed her weapon just as Bellerophon reared in an attempt to shake her from his back. With no time to spare she leaned into his mane, holding fast to the thick leather reins. Facing the wind, a large dollop of his foam brushed her breast and neck. Now she could hear his front hooves regain the ground and fall into a gallop. The calming speeches were gone. She cursed and commanded the monster, her message clear: It would take a better man than him to break her heart. 


A fourth shot rang out, soft and distant. For a moment she looked down at her side, straining to determine if the Winchester was still sheathed in her saddle; if somehow in her excitement the weapon had come undone and fired. But the shot had echoed from a distance. It vibrated inside her with a menacing sustain. It was, she remembered later, a sound to change a life. 

She pulled hard on the reins of the bridle, causing the Spanish bit to slash hard against the stallion’s mouth and tongue. Nearly exhausted, she managed to turn him to the right and toward one of the hedgerows that crossed the estate. Her eyes blurred with tears and sweat, she dug her heels deep into each black haunch. As Bellerophon landed hard on the far side of the hedge she swore at him again and again, spurring him to higher speed. 

When she reached the house, the chief groom looked up in terror at the sight of the hell horse in hands not those of his master. Covered with foam, his tongue bleeding from the bit, Bellerophon slowed down only long enough for the young woman to jump from his saddle and race toward the door of the great house. Snorting and pawing, the big black kicked high in the air as the grooms garlanded him in lariats. At the entrance to her father’s study, the housekeeper stood in the girl’s way. “No, miss,” she implored. “Please! Please don’t go in, for the love of the Savior, Miss Lorinda! For our Savior, miss!” 

The girl was tall and strong and dwarfed the tiny Scotswoman. She gently but firmly placed a hand on each of the housekeeper’s shoulders and in one hard motion moved her from the door. 

Her father had been in a sitting position when she heard the shot’s echo and so he remained. Graham David Jameson was as always elegantly dressed. His collar was pure white, offsetting the subtle blue stripe of the shirtfront below. For this occasion, he had chosen a dressing gown of mandarin scarlet with oriental symbols embroidered in its silk. The Navy Colt revolver hung still in his left hand beside his sharply pleated charcoal trousers. His face bore no expression, neither of peace nor horror, grace nor curse. The left temple, where the bullet entered, was neatly penetrated. The right, where the slug had made its exit, was a red mass stretching to the shoulder, punctuated here and there by the gray of brain and the cream- white of bone. 

Lorinda’s pale face became a mask, unreadable and plain. She stood for a long moment before the weeping servants and then, with one swift motion, removed a flowered and fringed cloth from a nearby table and covered her father, head to waist. She was in charge now. There were no older brothers; no married sisters to lean upon. It would not do to fall apart before the retainers who had served her father for so long, tolerating his benders, pretending that the women in his private apartments of a Saturday morning were the sort worthy of a Jameson. 

Lorinda glanced sidelong at the housekeeper. “Mrs. Reeves,” she said, “I will ask you to kindly clear all the staff from this room, as I would prefer my father neither to cause upset nor to be made a spectacle by his current condition. If you will do this, please, I will telephone the police and in due course engage the services of Kirk and Nice.” 

At the mention of the venerable undertakers, the Scotswoman crossed herself, then wiped the tears from her eyes and complied. The room was shortly empty of all souls save the daughter of the deceased. Lorinda picked up the newly installed telephone, asked for the operator, and only then turned in hot tears from the gory husk that had been David Jameson. Outside the lead casement window, Bellerophon reared one final time before the grooms led him to his stall. As Lorinda fell to her knees, all she could hear was the drumming of his hooves, threatening to shatter the paddock door. 

Then, through her tears, she noticed for the first time, nearly hidden in the upper corner of the desk blotter, the small sheet of monogrammed notepaper. It was upon this rich pure- white stock that Father had always sent the most personal of his messages. On it she had read his congratulations for every ribbon won at a horse show, every fine grade earned at school, every expression of gratitude at her forbearance, every apology for this or that weakness. 

Lorinda reached for the note. The paper felt more like cloth in her fingers, so fine was its weave. But now, instead of some last comfort, its message led only to a last bewildering rage. My dearest Lorinda, it began, the greeting followed only by the single letter: I. 

Below were two marks. One was red, a spot with a long tail that ran to the paper’s edge. The other, a gray streak, ended in a sudden burst, like the period on a sentence her father would never write. 

From the Hardcover edition.
Gerald Kolpan|Author Q&A

About Gerald Kolpan

Gerald Kolpan - Etta

Photo © Jonathan Rubin

Gerald Kolpan is an Emmy Award-winning television reporter in Philadelphia. Prior to his television career he wrote for newspapers and magazines nationwide and was a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. Etta is his first book.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Gerald Kolpan

Question: Where did the idea for Etta originate?
Gerald Kolpan: I saw a TV special on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid years ago. The narrator said that Etta Place was a complete mystery. No one knew where she came from; no one knew what became of her. So I started researching his claim and found out he was right. There were plenty of theories: she was a schoolteacher, a hooker, the niece of English royalty. The most credible one is probably that she was Sundance's cousin! But no one knew anything for sure so I was intrigued.

Q: There must have been extensive research involved. How did you go about it?
GK: The Free Library of Philadelphia was a great resource as was the good old Internet. Another terrific source for me was a book I've had since the 1970s: A Pictorial History of the Wild West by James Horan and Paul Sann. That really got me started.

Q: Just how much of this book is true?
GK: It loosely follows the time line of the lives of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and historically I tried very hard to make sure that Etta was where I say she was in the book. But most of it, especially as it pertains to her, is pure fiction. There's no evidence whatsoever that Etta was from Philadelphia, knew Eleanor Roosevelt, or ever even met Buffalo Bill let alone worked for him. The great romance is all conjecture because nobody even knows if Sundance was Etta's boyfriend. Harry Longbaugh, a socialist? That's all me. Sometimes I even made things up when I knew the real story. Like the showdown between Sundance and Kid Curry? Never happened, but the book needed it.

Q: I tried to do some research on Etta Place myself and came up with very little! Was the lack of information available a challenge or did it allow for more creativity?
GK: Oh no, it was great. The fewer the facts, the bigger room I had to play in. For instance, there was only one clear photograph of Etta–the double portrait of her and the Sundance Kid. The more I read about her, the more contradictions I found, so in the end I just let my imagination run wild.

Q: This is your first novel–why write this one?
GK: All my life I've tried to do creative things I've never done before. My degree is in art. I drew pictures and did graphic design for over ten years. I gave that up to start a rock band in the late '70s. I'm a reporter now, but I've never been to journalism school and I've never taken a writing class. I don't know. I just say to myself "That looks like fun" and try to figure it out. Plus, if one day I picked up The New York Times Book Review and saw somebody else had actually written a novel about Etta, I'd probably wish I had one of those nice Colt revolvers for my own head.

Q: A degree in art, a career in graphic design, and a rock band under your belt- you're a renaissance man, and perhaps a risktaker? Do you think this helped you to create the varied personalities of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang?
GK: I don't think so. I've never skydived and so far I've managed to avoid bungee jumping. I once went to an amusement park to cover the opening of a new roller coaster and The New York Times called me a chicken in print because I was the only reporter who refused to ride it. No, I just took the information on the various outlaws and amplified it, and where there was no information I added people who would move the story along. That's how Peg Leg Elliott winds up working in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. I mean, Kid Curry was bad, but he wasn't this bad.

Q: Of all the characters in this novel, who did you enjoy writing the most?
GK: I loved them all but I especially liked creating Etta herself. The challenge was, for me anyway, writing a credible woman of a hundred years ago. I was lucky in that my wife and my wonderful editors, all women, helped remove false notes. I also liked writing Buffalo Bill because he gave me a chance to be funny.

Q: There are historical icons in Etta, and you've gone into great detail about some. Are you worried about sullying Eleanor Roosevelt's memory with this book?
GK: No. Growing up in a good New York Democratic house, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were the closest people we had to gods. As a kid, I really liked her and when I got older and read about her, I admired her even more. She's probably the greatest American woman of the last century. So do I think my novel is going to undo that legacy? Not at all. Besides, I'm hardly the first writer to bring up Eleanor's relationships with other women. Historians have written about it and her reputation hasn't suffered one bit, nor should it.

Q: Do you think audiences who aren't familiar with Westerns or the movie will be able to connect with Etta?
GK: Sure. First of all, as brilliant as the movie is, Etta bears almost no similarity to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's a completely different story. And Etta isn't really a Western. Yes, there are horses and six-guns and Indians in it, but it could just as easily take place in the days of the knights or the Vikings. And anyway, a good part of the book takes place in non-western settings like the cities of Philadelphia and New York and the pampas of Argentina.

Q: You're right, this novel weaves together so many different elements, yet tells a beautiful and riveting tale and illuminates a great moment in history. What elements of the story do you hope people find most interesting?
GK: There's a lot of "stuff" in this book. Like how disgusting railroad food was at the time. Like what an oasis a Turkish bath could be in a much filthier era. I set out to write a book that was surprising–that would surprise me. And if it surprises me, I hope it will surprise the people who read it.

Q: As a features reporter, did telling this story come naturally to you?
GK: Writing fiction is really different from writing a minute and forty-five seconds of TV every day. Much, much harder. I wrote Etta five times before I ever showed it to an agent.

Q: What is your writing process like?
GK: I don't have a daily routine, like I write every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. I have a full- time job and a family so it's hard to find time for any extracurricular activities. Etta was written at night and on weekends and on vacation in a rented house at the Jersey shore. I took my time. I also gave the book to friends to read as things went along and that was a huge help. For instance, everyone who read the second draft said the book was just too dirty. I even gave it to one person to read who I knew would hate it. That person gave me some of the most valuable feedback.

On the creative side, I put together an outline of the book based on what was known historically plus what I was adding. But I'm a big believer in staying flexible and open-minded. If the outline says one thing and the character says another, listen to the character. Sometimes I think the story is already out there and if you don't force things and get in the way, it will emerge. It's like how Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix played guitar: to me it always seemed like there was this big cosmic radio out in space somewhere and they were conduits for the sound.

Also, I always listen to my editors. I never tell them "no" until I've given their suggestions a try. And believe me, they know what they're doing, so they're right the majority of the time.

Q: What do you like to read?
GK: As far as my favorite reading material, give me a thousand-page biography of Roosevelt's third vice president and I'm ready for the beach.

Q: And what books are on your nightstand right now?
GK: Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Q: People say "write what you know." Do you agree?
GK: Not at all. If everybody wrote what they know there would be no Zorro or Emma or Sherlock Holmes or Batman. If I had written what I know, this book would have been about a reporter in Philadelphia instead of a beautiful, sexy train robber a hundred years ago. I'm already living my life. Why would I want to write about it, too?

Q: What's next for you?
GK: Well, tomorrow, I'm going back to work. Meanwhile, I've started researching my next book. I don't like to talk about subject matter until a book is further along. This one will also have cowboys and Indians in it, but in a lot of ways it will be different from Etta. For one thing, she wasn't Jewish.

From the Hardcover edition.



“In this exhilarating and provocative story of the life of the mysterious figure known as Etta Place, Gerard Kolpan creates a richly conceived, passionately rendered, and wonderfully imagined novel that leaps off the page with its daring. When Etta walks into your life, you won’t be able to put the book down, so prop up the pillows and get ready to ride the night through—because you're going to fall in love with this one.”—Jonis Agee, author of The River Wife

“Kolpan has a gift for capturing the voice of America at the turn of the last century, and he uses it to full advantage, entwining newspaper reports, historical documents, journals, and his own lush prose. Etta’s story unfolds in surprising ways against the backdrop of one of the most colorful periods in our nation’s history. This is a writer to watch.”—Karen Abbott, author of Sin in the Second City

“The sketchy details of the life of Etta Place, outlaw and paramour of Harry ‘Sundance Kid’ Longbaugh, are imaginatively filled in by first-time novelist Kolpan in this winning tale of the Wild West. . . . Kolpan’s snappy storytelling makes it impossible not to want to ride along.”—Publishers Weekly

“Incorporating Etta’s diary entries, telegraph messages, and news clippings into the narrative, Kolpan vividly tells a tale that is both outrageous and entertaining, sure to be compared favorably with Larry McMurtry’s novels of the Wild West.”—Library Journal

“Emmy Award-winning TV journalist Kolpan extends his resume impressively with this picaresque debut novel . . . Few will have any more success resisting Etta than do the many men, women and other critters encountered during her memorable adventures. Great fun and—beneath the hijinks—a surprisingly substantial novel.”—Kirkus, starred

“Imaginative . . . Loaded with captivating historical detail . . . A convincing anti-heroine [readers] can root for to the end.”—USA Today

Etta has everything you’d want in a story of the last days of the old West—fast horses, chivalrous train robbers, dastardly villains, and a beautiful damsel constantly in distress, but usually able to get out of it on her own. It’s rollicking, rambunctious, rip-roaring, rootin’-tootin’ . . . It makes you want to hop on a fast horse and join the gang.”—Chicago Sun-Times

“Packed with adventure . . . As brilliant as a summer’s sunset, Etta takes you on an action-packed, ‘celebrity-studded,’ trail-blazing ride. . . Saddle up!”—Times Record News (Wichita Falls, Texas)

“Rather than be ribald and Deadwood-esque, as most modern Westerns appear, Kolpan's chatty character-run horse opera is stately, bloody and romantic — the lit-equivalent of Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller . . .” —Philadelphia City Paper

“Rollicking . . . filled with colorful characters . . . Kolpan is also good at taking the reader back to the sights, sounds and smells of the early 20th century . . . A bully adventure!” —BookPage

“A richly imagined tale . . . A fast-paced adventure story, replete with gunfights and train robberies and the romance of the Cowboy West.”—Denver Post

“In this lively and well-researched novel, reporter Kolpan explores the mysterious life of 1900s figure Etta Place, fleshing out her romance with legendary Old West robber the Sundance Kid.”—OK!

“Kolpan deserves credit for his creativity . . . Rich and rewarding . . The well-crafted narrative successfully brings to life an era and a figure lost to time.”—Philadelphia Inquirer

“In this warm, deftly plotted novel, Gerald Kolpan gives the beautiful young woman an adventurous life . . . a charming story as filled with train robberies and prison escapes as any dime novel of the time—but written a whole lot better. Gerald Kolpan has painted such a vivid picture of the era—and the women living it—that it’s difficult to imagine that Etta has lived any other life.”—Historical Novels Review

From the Hardcover edition.

  • Etta by Gerald Kolpan
  • March 24, 2009
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Ballantine Books
  • $13.99
  • 9780345512895

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