Mention the name Etta Place to Hole in the Wall buffs and they’ll know immediately that she was the Sundance Kid’s companion and who was portrayed by Katherine Ross in the very popular film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But ask them whatever happened to Etta the most likely response will be a shrug of the shoulders.
According to known historical accounts of people who knew Place, they all agreed that she was pretty, cordial and refined; she spoke in an educated manner, and she claimed that she was originally from the east coast. With that bit of information, Gerald Kolpan in his debut novel, Etta, imagines the very beginnings of this mystery woman and weaves a story of who Etta Place was and what became of her after the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy were killed in ambush by the military junta in Bolivia.
Etta is first introduced as Philadelphia debutante Lorinda Jameson whose father’s suicide leaves her penniless and in debt to the Black Hand mafia. With the help of her father’s lawyer, who gives her the identity of Etta Place, Lorinda escapes to the west and is employed as a “Harvey Girl” waitress in Colorado. Life for Etta goes awry when she’s accused of killing the son of a local business man.
Etta waits in jail for her sentence but thanks to help of another Harvey Girl, Laura Boullion, Etta escapes and becomes part of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch. With Cassidy and Sundance, she becomes an active participant in robbing banks and trains–a far cry from her days as a society girl in Philadelphia–and hunted by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
From the little information available on Place, Kolpan creates a believable story of Etta with the Hole in the Wall gang, but the story falters once Etta leaves the caves of the Wild Bunch and heads back to New York City. Here a cast of great historic figures pop in Etta’s life. She develops a warm friendship with the young Eleanor Roosevelt; takes Annie Oakley’s place in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and even saves the life of President Teddy Roosevelt in a mucked-up assassination attempt. The story falls apart when Etta is kidnapped by Kid Curry, who has been holding a grudge against Etta since her days with the Wild Bunch.
Kolpan takes historical liberties for the sake of moving the story forward with Etta’s close (and near sapphic) friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and even takes a giant leap in credibility by having the Sundance Kid become a strident Socialist and setting up a commune in Argentina. Here, Kolpan inserts Trotsky–characterized as a fussy gas bag–in Argentina as guest of the Kid and later as a travelling companion for Etta when she returns to the US for an appendectomy.
In spite of the questionable historical content, Kolpan provides colorful descriptions of the places and characters. The most amusing is the stoic and taciturn Laura Boullion, who utters no more than five words. However, for the most part, the dialogue seems contrived.
It was rumored that after the Bolivian ambush that Sundance possibly survived and returned to the United States. Kolpan inserts this possibility in his conclusion. It’s a sweet ending, however, by slotting in the story the volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln in a parade that never happened or would have occurred in 1937, Kolpan, once again takes too giant a step and misses.
There is no doubt Etta Place was a captivating woman and Kolpan’s early premise of well-bred woman who turns into an outlaw due to circumstances she can’t control is intriguing, but for history buffs Etta has too many what if scenarios that come across as unbelievable.