The sisters’ financial woes and the United States’ looming participation in World War I give this novel a more serious tone than its predecessors. It’s based less on the real-life sisters and more on Stewart’s imagining of their life as the country moves toward the verge of the war. There may be less humor this time, but the story is ultimately more gripping and satisfying as it makes abundantly clear the continuing societal dismissal of women’s worth, even when the fate of the world is at stake.
In 1917, with their lives at loose ends, the fictional sisters sign up for a six-week “Army camp for girls,” an actual national service program set up to train women to do their part for the war effort. Military leaders were adamant that “there is no intention of producing a modern Amazonian corps,” but they hadn’t yet met the Kopps.
Stewart places them at a real-life camp in Chevy Chase, Md., that opened in 1916. The action-loving sisters are quickly disenchanted, spending their days “learning the skills most women are suited for who wish to be intelligently useful in times of national stress.” But bandage rolling and bedmaking don’t quite cut it for the Kopps, who are reminded by one of the camp’s driving forces that women’s involvement in the war effort must start small. “No one woke up one morning and decided that women should train just as men do — well no one of the male persuasion woke up and thought that,” a female member of the War Department warns them.
A handful of disgruntled women go rogue, clandestinely learning hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship. Their goal: Learn self-defense and travel to France to drive ambulances and tend the wounded. Norma, meanwhile, is trying to convince the army that pigeons are the best way for the military to communicate during wartime (history later proved that these birds were indispensable message carriers), and Fleurette, a budding actress, is organizing entertainment for the troops.
Life in the camp provides a meaty story, but Stewart dishes up another savory drama based on another historical figure: Beulah Binford, who, like the Kopps, never attended army camps. She was, however, a woman hated by the American public for her involvement in a murder case in Richmond — she was unfairly vilified, because a man who killed his wife was obsessed with her.
Beulah’s story adds a grimness to the novel as Stewart writes of how Beulah was abused by men since childhood and then dragged through the mud by the media for years. In “Kopp Sisters on the March,” a desperate Beulah arrives at the camp under an assumed identity, hoping to use her training as a way to escape America and get lost in war-torn France.
Beulah and Constance couldn’t have foreseen that they would have to reckon with their past at the women’s camp, but they come out of this story more powerful and self-confident. As one character sums it up: “If we set about doing what we know, in our hearts and minds, must be done, then we will be impossible to ignore. We will take our place at the table because it belongs to us.”
Carol Memmott, a freelance book critic, lives in Northern Virginia.
KOPP SISTERS ON THE MARCH
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 368 pp. $26.