1916, Amy Stewart, Bergen County, book review, Constance Kopp, double standard, gender inequality, historical fiction, mystery fiction, New Jersey, sexism, white slave trade
Review: Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, by Amy Stewart
Houghton Mifflin, 2017. 365 pp. $26
What profession would someone named Constance Kopp follow besides that of a loyal, hard-working officer of the law? Indeed, Constance is a deputy sheriff in Bergen County, New Jersey, the first woman in the nation to hold such an office, for this is early 1916, when even the notion of a woman wearing a badge and a weapon causes anxious mirth. Her exploits have earned her much attention in the press, which Constance would hate even if the stories recounted the truth or treated her as a serious professional instead of an object of condescending admiration. Worse, she receives marriage proposals by mail from men who write as if they’re doing her a favor. But Constance has no wish to marry and lives with her two sisters, Norma and Fleurette.
As deputy sheriff, Constance is the matron of the Hackensack female jail, a few of whose inmates have swindled, thieved, or attempted murder. But most are young women whose only crime is running away from home to lead an independent life. As the novel opens, there are two such cases, followed quickly by a third. Constance will do her best to protect these women, exceeding her authority if necessary, but the system is rigged. The law will almost certainly bear down on the runaways, accusing them of immorality, mental illness, depraved character, or anything else that sells newspapers and wins votes. Imprisonment without trial in a reformatory is the typical punishment until age twenty-one, after which the woman becomes a ward of the state, which can then decide whether she’s fit to marry, and whom. Sterilization remains a possibility.
Constance has many reasons to struggle against this persecution and the mindset that drives it, some of whose loudest proponents are women. The impulse to lock up independent-minded women has hardly faded since 1916, so Stewart need invent nothing–and in fact, she hasn’t, for the Kopp sisters are real, and so is just about everything that happens in this novel.
Writing faithfully to history carries several demands, not least to make adherence to fact seem spontaneous rather than inevitable. Stewart succeeds, but the novel’s greatest strength is the sisters’ unusual ménage. They live together in more or less close disharmony, and their battles mirror their conflicts elsewhere. Constance continually squares off against priggish, bossy, unpleasant Norma but most often gives in because Constance is dependent, and Norma manages the household. What? you ask. A deputy sheriff who champions independent women is herself dependent? But out of uniform, Constance is lazy about chores, not terribly disciplined, and a coward — she would rather face down a vicious, prejudiced district attorney than stand up to her own sisters. This is a brilliant stroke, true to the split between the public and private selves that applies to many people, but there’s more. The two elder sisters argue most often about Fleurette, a pretty, spoiled eighteen-year-old who dreams of going on the stage — not one day, but now, a potential runaway right at home.
An image came to mind of Fleurette at the age of nine or ten, when she kept an album of pictures of fashionable people in pretty places. There was a newspaper drawing she particularly liked of debutantes strolling down the Catskill boardwalk under their parasols. She had a little paint set and she colored in all the dresses, making them as bright as peacocks while the world around them was newsprint gray and drab.
Consequently, Constance gives in to Fleurette more easily than Norma does, because she recognizes the spirit to escape expectations, as she did. But another, more important reason is that Fleurette is Constance’s illegitimate daughter, a tightly guarded secret that the girl herself doesn’t know. Without having to say so, Stewart shows that Constance could have been an inmate at the Hackensack jail. So everywhere the deputy looks, she sees her reflection, which gives her a personal stake in everything.
There’s no mystery in Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, nor much detection, yet the tension remains constant. You care about these people’s struggles against inequality, though it must be said that their situations, rather than their characters, compel attention. I understand what Constance and Norma don’t want, and what they’re trying to protect, but not what they dream of in unguarded moments. That lack of yearning keeps the novel from being stronger, more immediate than it is.
Nowhere is that deficit more obvious than Constance’s maternal feelings for Fleurette, which should be more visceral. Her empathy, though powerful and fully earned, is all very well, but however indifferent a mother Constance is, she has that undeniable bond. Doesn’t she wish things were different, or at least, imagine how life would be like if she didn’t have to resort to subterfuge? Perhaps this is why the ending, though satisfying, feels a little tame. Nevertheless, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions is witty, entertaining, and thought-provoking, a pretty good combination, in 1916 or now.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.