03 February 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

If I ask you who Jesse James was, what would your answer be? (If you say that tattooed dude who married Sandra Bullock, I will personally reach through my computer and throat punch you. I kid you not. Well, maybe I do kid you...) Seriously, though, most people know who Jesse James is, right? Confederate raider. Bank robber. America's first celebrity criminal. Most historians are divided between whether James, who was eventually gunned down in his own home by an accomplice, was a murderous, cutthroat bandit or a wronged man out to avenge his losses. Well? Which was he? According to Ron Hansen's exquisite historical novel The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Jesse was a little bit of both.

Rather than follow Jesse and his gang from his first robbery to his disastrous raid on the Northfield, Minnesota bank that effectively ended his career, as so many others choose to do, Ron Hansen starts his story after Northfield, with James and a ragtag band of yokels (including, Ford, his eventual assassin) robbing a train and records the tense disputes, dirty deals, and overbearing suspicion that caused the band to fall apart as members turned on each other. After Ford's killing of James, the novel traces Ford from then until his own murder ten years later in a Colorado saloon he owned. Bob Ford emerges as the real protagonist in this novel, a cocky, sly, awkward young man who idolized Jesse before he became equally obsessed with gunning his idol down for fame and fortune, rewards that he soon realizes are not at all what he expected.

I really love Hansen's characterizations. In this novel, the infamous outlaw is far more complex than the simplistic characterization he usually receives in the media. Jesse is genteel, hot-tempered, cold-blooded, generous, moody, jovial, suspicious, intuitive, clever, stubborn. What he is not is decipherable. Likewise for Hansen's portrayal of Ford, the twenty year old Jesse James wannabe who shot James for the hefty reward money. Hansen's rich characterizations show great psychological insight on the author's part and considerable historical authenticity. In addition to a unique plot and fantastic characters, the historical detail is meticulous. This novel is one of the best historical fiction books I have read regarding period atmosphere, in everything from describing social customs to portraying dialogue. Hansen relied heavily on newspapers from this period for his research, and their influence may have impacted his narrative style. Hansen writes with an eloquent, sophisticated style, somewhat reminiscent of the period. If you adore fine wordsmithing, you will love this novel. It makes word nerds, such as myself, swoon.

I enjoyed every minute of reading this book. (In fact, I reread it just to blog on it.) But it may not be for everyone. If you are expecting tons of action, you may be disappointed. Not that there isn't any. There's a train robbery at the beginning (Yeehaw!) and several gunfights, but because this book focuses on James's last months, the dramatic tension derives largely from the ominous suspense that builds up to Jesse James's inevitable assassination. The pacing is not slow. In fact, the book is quite engrossing, but it's not as action-packed as it may at first appear to be.

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a well-crafted novel all-around. The characterizations are first class, the historical detail is superb, the writing is exceptional, and the story is a fascinating examination of the life and death of one of America's most famous citizens. Many people knock Westerns as a second rate genre. They evidentally haven't read Hansen's book.


Next Week: I must confess something dreadful, dear readers. I have several tests and an essay due next week. I am probably not going to read anything. (I weep as I type this.) However, I made plans for such a situation and have reviews stored for weeks like this. I plan to post a review of Emile Zola's psychological realist classic Therese Raquin. I love this book so much! I read it last autumn and didn't blog about it only because I had just done Double Indemnity. The subject matter is quite similar (man helps woman plot to kill husband with disastrous consequences) but the results are oh so different. Can't wait to share it! There is a remote chance I will get to read either Davis Grubb's The Night of The Hunter or Graham Greene's The Third Man, but don't count on it.


  1. Having a post on hand is a good thing. You've learned yer bloggin' well, Zella.

    I must also disagree with, slap, and punch people who say Westerns are a second-rate genre. This book obviously isn't, and I've read many others that aren't--Louis L'Amour's work, for one.

    Good review, Zella.

  2. Thanks, Scott! Yeah, that scrambling to read a book and write a coherent post about it in one day taught me a valuable lesson. :D

    I know! Sadly, with Western genre fiction, a few writers give everyone else a bad name. *glares at bad writers*

  3. Ah doo luvvah goo-wud westuhn, Zelluh :D And I did mightily enjowy thissuh post. Made me wannuh read thuh book ;)

  4. Howdy, Andruh! Ah sure do thank yuh. *sweeps off ten gallon hat in a display of gratitude*

    It's an excellent book! Let me know what you think of it if you read it. *cough* We will *shoot* the breeze about your conclusions. :D

  5. Well done, once again you've made me want to read another book. As always.
    Can I ask, have you ever blogged about a book you haven't liked? I haven't noticed.

  6. Thanks, Penguins! I know you love history, so I bet you'll enjoy this one. :)

    To answer your question: I stay away from blogging about books I dislike. I would prefer to tell someone about a great book and encourage them to read it, rather than ragging on a book. I haven't read too many bad books lately, mostly the ones I dislike have just been not my taste. The only time I would blog about a book I disliked is if it was so bad I felt the need to warn you guys about it, as in it had no redeeming quality. :)

  7. Hey, I (finally!) finished my review of Hamlet here:

    I do know who Jesse James is (releases own throat in relief) though I hadn't heard of this book until your review. I'll definitely consider it!

  8. Jourdie, Cool! I will go read it pronto! :)

    *draws hand back with ninja-like reflexes* That is good that you knew. I would hate to inflict pain on any of my readers. :D

    Hope you enjoy Hansen's novel if you read it! Let me know what you think of it. :)

  9. great blog, zella! i read your review for fahrenheit 451 and now i want to read it! it looks really good :)

  10. Lucy, Thanks so much! I am glad you like my blog. :)

    I appreciate your support!