Book Review: Kopp Sisters on the March

There’s this thing in film and TV criticism called the Bechdel Test. Named for Alison Bechdel, author of acclaimed graphic novels Fun Home and Are You My Mother? (among others, the test asks three questions about a piece of media:

  1. Are there at least two named female characters?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. …About something other than a man?

If you can answer “yes” to each question, the media passes! Hooray!

This test exists, though, because so many contemporary pieces of media do not pass it. Who would have thought that, in 2019, it would be so difficult to get two or more women into the same scene taking to each other about something other than a man?

One of my favorite things about Kopp Sisters on the March is that, were there a “reverse-Bechdel” test, asking if there are any scenes with two named male characters talking to each other, it might not pass.

Kopp Sisters on the March is a book about women. It’s about what women do when life tries to kick you when you’re down. It’s about what women do when men try to tell you you can’t do something because you’re a woman. It’s about female friendships, and sisterhood and the ways we can step up or act out when a situation pushes us to our limits.

Advance paperback copy of Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart against a wooden background. Cover art shows three women in military-style dress in an outdoor area, biplanes in the sky and tents on the grounds surrounding them. The woman in the foreground holds binoculars to her eyes, the woman in the middle ground raises signaling flags, and the woman in the background holds a hand up to her hat as if surveying the goings-on of the camp.
Kopp Sisters on the March, by Amy Stewart

Full Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book, but I was confident I’d love it way back when the author, Amy Stewart, wrote in her newsletter that she was working on the fifth Kopp Sisters novel, which sees the Kopp sisters leave their New Jersey farmstead for a six-week women’s military-style training camp in the weeks leading up to the U.S.’s entry into World War I.  I’ve loved the Kopp sisters novels since I finally bought Girl Waits with Gun on Audible in 2017 after seeing its excellent cover art in bookstores over and over again, and then read Lady Cop Makes Trouble and Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions shortly thereafter.

Before I move on, there are a few warnings I should give you:

  • Spoiler Warning: Mild spoilers for Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit, Kopp Sisters Book 4
  • Content Warning: Some discussion of domestic violence.

If you’d like to proceed, read on below the break.

The end of Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit sees Constance Kopp lose her job as New Jersey’s first female deputy sheriff after the election of a new sheriff who doesn’t see the need for a female deputy in his office. She spends the winter in a foggy malaise, and then in the spring of 1917, her sister Norma drags Constance and their younger sister Fleurette off to an all-women military-style training camp for six weeks of formation marching and lessons in nursing, cooking, radio signalling, and, under Norma’s own tutelage, carrier pigeon husbandry.

As the camp begins, Constance hopes to find a bit of anonymity among the women of the camp after her firing and subsequent civil service suit against the sheriff’s office is trumpeted from newspapers across the country. But then the camp matron has an accident and has to step down from her duties, and Constance is asked to step in to run the camp “until a suitable replacement can be found,” lest the camp be dismantled and all of the attendees sent home.

Kopp Sisters on the March follows Constance’s struggles to walk the line between wanting to keep the camp free of scandal and her growing dissatisfaction with the limitations the camp places on its lady patrons. Many women showed up at the camp almost as a lark, an entertainment for society girls with too much time and money, but others are serious about military service, and they see the camp as one avenue to the front lines in France. But Constance worries that sewing and bandaging lessons won’t be enough to prepare those young women for what they would encounter in a war zone, and so she takes it upon herself to prepare them.

Meanwhile, right under Constance’s nose is the notorious Beulah Binford, who is also seeking anonymity under the false name Roxie Collins. Kopp Sisters on the March is as much her story as it is the Kopps’, and throughout the book we learn who she is and what–or who–she’s hiding from here at the camp.

As Beulah’s and Constance’s stories unfold and weave together, the tension mounts and the stakes grow higher until they reach a spectacular climax that I absolutely refuse to spoil. But I will say this: by the end of the novel, Constance’s work at the camp comes to be about more than preparing young women for war. It grows to be about showing those who don’t really believe in these women–including, in some cases, themselves–just what they’re capable of doing.

There are many things Kopp Sisters on the March does quite well. Stewart is a master of suspense; she kept me on the edge of my seat without making me feel like she or the characters were artificially withholding information in order to create that suspense. She breathes life into her characters, many of whom are based on real, historical women, including Beulah, Constance, and her sisters. And she tells their stories with compassion and pathos, such that we root for them even when–especially when–others do not.

There is one thing that did not sit well with me, though, too, and I’ll try to describe them without spoiling too much. There is an instance of domestic violence that one of the characters eventually links to mental illness as a possible explanation. While I appreciate the effort of the characters to understand why the violence occurred, as someone who both has dealt with mental illness herself and whose loved ones have dealt with it as well, I always worry about the stigma that such links produce. Not to mention, it feels a bit like it lets the perpetrators of domestic violence off the hook a little bit. So, that bit of the story didn’t sit quite well with me, but on the other hand, it felt like the author trying to give one of the characters a way to process the events that had occurred and their own feelings about those events in a way to give them a bit of resolution.

That being said, overall, I really loved this book, and will most likely read it again on Audible once it’s released on September 17th. Besides being a well-crafted story, the voice actor for this series, Christina Moore, is absolutely phenomenal.

If you like historical fiction and good, complex female characters, march right over to your nearest bookseller (indie preferred, but you do you) and pick up Kopp Sisters on the March when it comes out on September 17th. Happy reading!

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