Better known for her nonfiction (The Drunken Botanist, 2013, etc.), Stewart crafts a solid, absorbing novel based on real-life events—though they’re unusual enough to seem invented.
Constance Kopp and her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, are driving into Paterson, New Jersey, on a summer day in 1914 when a motor car rams them, splintering their buggy and mildly injuring all three women and their horse. Drunken lout Henry Kaufman thinks that owning a local silk manufacturer entitles him to ignore Constance’s reasonable request that he pay for the damages, but he’s misjudged his opponent. As Constance’s first-person narrative unfolds, we see that she’s a bold woman unafraid to defy convention, determined to see justice done and to protect her family; Fleurette, we learn, is actually Constance’s out-of-wedlock baby, raised as a late-life sibling by her mother. When Henry and his thuggish friends start turning up at the Kopps’ isolated farm, firing guns and sending bricks through the window bearing letters threatening all the sisters but paying particular attention to Fleurette, our tough-minded heroine is not about to be intimidated. She swears out a complaint against Henry, backed up by Sheriff Robert Heath, himself something of a rule-breaker. More threats ensue, as does the complicating factor of a young woman employed at the silk factory who bore Henry’s baby and is convinced he had a hand in the child’s mysterious disappearance. Stewart deftly tangles and then unwinds a complicated plot with nice period detail, and it’s good to see Henry finally get his comeuppance, but the real interest here is rooting for Constance as she refuses to be patronized or reduced to a dependent of her well-meaning brother, who thinks three unmarried women should naturally be living with a male protector. A final scene offers well-deserved new horizons for Constance and hints a series may be in the works.
More adventures involving gutsy Constance, quietly determined Sheriff Heath, and a lively cast of supporting characters would be most welcome.