Review: Etta

Etta: A Novel, by Gerald Kolpan

American historical fiction is a tricky genre. For one thing, there isn't too much American history to choose from. Two hundred years is a relatively short time frame and when much of that period was taken up by western expansion, you end up with a lot of novels grouped under the Western genre heading.

Not that there's anything wrong with westerns, it's just that rarely do historical fiction fanatics make this crossover. (Although if you ever decide you might want to give it a try, just ask A Reader's Respite and we'll be happy to recommend a couple that might just change your persepective!)

So what makes a novel a western and what makes a novel American historical fiction? Not simply the setting, that's for certain. After all, you can take a story about a lone woman trying to make it on her own on the American frontier, throw in a handsome guy and bingo, it becomes a romance.

Gerald Kolpan's debut novel, Etta, might have been just another western or frontier romance book but for one thing: Etta Place was an actual person.

Those of you familiar with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are bound to recognize her: Etta Place was Sundance's girl (possibly wife?). One thing is for certain, Kolpan couldn't have found a character more laced with possiblity.

Try not to lament over how young Newman and Redford are in this shot.

Very little is known about the real Etta Place, other than she did indeed exist. There's even a photo of her and Sundance. We know she was a member of Cassidy's Hole in the Wall Gang and a pretty darned good outlaw. But eyewitness accounts of the day also say that she was an incredibly refined woman with the manners and bearing of a well-bred young woman of wealth.

Sundance and Etta

But aside from this, nothing is known about Etta. Readers had to wait for Kolpan to come along, fill in the blanks with his rich imagination and give us Etta's story.

The story is beautifully presented and Kolpan's suppositions are surprisingly plausible. The journey from Etta's priviledged upbringing to a tough Hole in the Wall gang member is seamless and her great love with Sundance is both delicate and gritty, befitting the times.

If we had any complaints, it would have be the brevity of Butch, Sundance and Etta's time in South America. As the story drew to a close, it's as if Kolpan wanted to fit too much information in too few pages and the result was a slightly hurried ending that could have been more fleshed out.

But that complaint shouldn't stop you from reading Etta. It is a fabulous example of just how good American historical fiction can be....even if the cover suffers woman-with-her-head-cut-off-syndrome.

Want to read it? Leave me a comment saying so and A Reader's Respite will draw a random winner on Sunday! (International entrants are just fine by us!)

Title: Etta: A Novel
Author: Gerald Kaplan
ISBN-13: 978-0345503688
336 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Date: March 24, 2009

More reviews for you to peruse:

Literary License, On My Bookshelf, Exiled at the Beach Book Reviews,Worducopia (with My Friend Amy), Medieval Bookworm, Book Lites, mybookdb, On the Same Page, stitch and bear, Literate Housewife Review, Breaking the Fourth Wall, The Right Book at the Right Time, Booking Mama, Book Chase, Somewhat Bookish, The Printed Page


  1. wow, this book sounds great! I would love to read it.

  2. This sounds fantastic. I would love to read it.

    ♥ Nely

  3. I'll just come right out and say that the western thing is not my gig. BUT, a friend thrust a book called "Outlaw" by Warren Kiefer into my hands, and is in my top 10 books of all time. Who would've imagined? So I know that I need to leave my little preconceptions behind and forge ahead with anything well-recommended. I'd love to give it a shot!

  4. I already have a copy of this just waiting n my shelf to be read, so don't enter me. Just stopping in with a few thoughts.

    I'm more lamenting how hot Newman is than how young.

    What is up with them cutting the heads off of women on these book covers?

    Glad to see that this is a worthwhile read. I'm trying to get to it as quickly as I can.

  5. I don't usually read books about that period in history, but this one sounds good. Thanks for the review.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  6. Don't enter me - I have this in my TBR pile. I just loved your review and look forward to reading it now.

  7. I love Westerns...Lonesome Dove is one of my all-time favorites!

    I've heard great things about this book. I would love to read it. Please enter me in the contest.

    Thanks so much!

  8. I wonder why the ending would be rushed if the book isn't actually that long. It seems very strange.

  9. This book looks great! I love your review of it also with all the photos. put my name into the drawing!

  10. This book sounds amazing! Great review!

  11. Hi-

    I'm Gerald Kolpan and I wrote Etta.
    Just a note to thank you for a review that was both thoughtful and insightful. You really get the book.

    I'd like to invite you and all your readers to the ETTA website:

    On it you can read bios of the characters, find out where I outright lied, listen to three minutes of the audio book and even hear me sing (not that that's a selling point).Lotsa pictures, too.

  12. Sandy - I'm going to find this Outlaw you speak of right away. I don't normally read westerns either, but I do know that there are standouts in each genre that transcend this kind of thing. Thanks for the rec!

    Nicole - good observations, ha. Not sure about the cover thing but it's starting to bug me. I'm about to boycott any book with a woman's head not intact.

    Book Resort - *snort* okay, that was funny.

    Kathy - we must be kindred spirits....that's my favorite book, too!

    Anonymous Child - maybe it was just me. I was enjoying the book so much that I thought their time in South America would be longer. Maybe it ended perfectly?

  13. Gerald - you know, if I live to be 100 (gosh, I hope not), I'll never get used to the Google alerts, LOL. Thanks for stopping was a lovely book and your character choice was phenomenal. It can't be easy to have such a homerun as a debut pressure for the next one, right? :)

  14. Love your review! Can't wait to read it

  15. I must say, when it comes to western genre literature, Elmore Leonard's western shorts rank right up there. The atmosphere he provides is fantastic.

    But, I am a sucker for the westerns. Books or Films. I made one last year, film that is.

    keep it up Michele.


  16. Newman and Redford-it didn't get any better than those two. I've heard a bit about this novel. I'd love to be entered. I've never read any books based on American history. Thanks!

  17. Okay, I have to admit I had to read this post twice - the first time I got sidetracked with all the Newman/Redford prettiness. =)

    I have this in my stack to read - you make it sound very appealing!

  18. Sounds great. I haven't read many books set in this time period. Movies are another story.

  19. Michele, sounds like a great book. It's odd that so many people (including me) have considered books about the West to be off-limits. Now that my son lives in Colorado, I've ben pointed to lots of great books about the area, including Pete Dexter's Deadwood and Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose. Thanks for helping to remove the mystique.
    p.s. Keep me out of the giveaway; my TBR pile already is the size of a mesa.

  20. Of course I want to read this! How neat! I don't read many westerns but this one is one that I know I would enjoy.

  21. On my tbr pile - severly behind. Glad it's good!

  22. I hadn't even noticed that the head of the woman was cut off on the cover. Great review! I already have this one, so no need to enter me.

  23. Etta sounds interesting. I just ordered it from my library ---a huge library system. All copies are checked out, so it is on hold for me & will have to be sent from a different branch so it ought to take a few weeks..

  24. I love that you found that photo of Etta and Sundance, very nice!


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