Kopp Sisters on the March

The strong-willed Kopp sisters are back. These are the real-life Paterson, New Jersey, women whose unorthodox lives in the pre-World War I era captured the attention of Portland writer Amy Stewart several years ago when she was looking through some old newspapers.

Stewart wrote her first historical novel, “Girl Waits with Gun,” around a 1914 incident involving the oldest sister, Constance Kopp, who was involved in a horse-drawn buggy/automobile accident (she was in the buggy). Instead of admitting that he was at fault, the driver of the car initiated a mob-style campaign of harassment against her whole family.

Ultimately, the local sheriff was so impressed with Kopp’s pluck in helping to bring the bad guy to justice that he hired her as his deputy – the first female in the nation to hold such a position.

This book was so well-received that Stewart has gone on to write a series around the Kopp sisters. The fifth novel, “Kopp Sisters on the March,” arrives in bookstores this week.

This story takes place on the eve of World War I. Stewart admits she couldn’t find much about the Kopp sisters in records from the war period, so she brought in Beulah Binford, another historical figure who had garnered lots of unwelcome press coverage at that time, and wove her into a story with the sisters, in a setting unique to the era.

National Service Schools were military-style camps intended to mobilize women for preparedness on the home front. Attendees were put through a routine of calisthenics and drills and taught “skills most suited for women who wish to be intelligently useful in times of national stress” – things like rolling bandages, signaling with flags and “scientific bed-making.”

With her law enforcement background, Constance is unimpressed by how lightweight the program seems to be. But then the matron of the camp is injured and Constance, thrust into the leadership position, has the opportunity to put more teeth into the training.

Middle sister Norma, meanwhile, hopes to impress top military brass with a horse-drawn pigeon cart of her own design. She believes carrier pigeons should be deployed as part of a secret communications system to help win the war.

Fleurette Kopp, the youngest, decides that the camp should have professional entertainers brought in to boost the morale of the women.

And after being entangled in a scandal that involved adultery and murder and lots of sordid press coverage, all Beulah wants is to keep a low profile. She has entered the camp under an assumed identity and hopes to get the training she needs to be sent overseas to help in the war effort and have the chance to reinvent herself.

Stewart has never shirked from laying out the stark realities of a time when women were treated as second-class citizens. With war on the horizon and an unsettled domestic situation, this book seems darker in tone than some of the earlier books in the series. But it certainly is a page-turner.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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