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.