‘The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford’ by Ron Hansen


It’s not hard to understand why people are so fascinated by outlaws. Characters such as Robin Hood, Bonnie and Clyde, and Al Capone capture the imagination with their deeds, the desperate times they lived in, and, above all, their personalities. I’ve just read a novel based on the life of one of the most famous outlaws of them all. The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford tells the story of Jesse’s betrayal and assassination by a junior member of his gang. Jesse’s charisma is obvious in the opening pages:

If he made an entrance, heads turned in his direction; if he strode down an aisle store clerks backed away; if he neared animals they retreated. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rains fell straighter, clocks slowed, sounds were amplified: his enemies would not have been much surprised if he produced horned owls from beer bottles or made candles out of his fingers.

I share the fascination with outlaws. But I don’t understand why some people admire Jesse James; he and his gang members were thieves and murderers. They were not stealing for the benefit of others, like Robin Hood, but for themselves. Nor were they brave – what’s courageous about armed men terrorising and shooting ordinary unarmed civilians? It was often the little people who suffered for the James gang’s crimes:

 An immigrant had his wallet tossed in a sack and soon beseeched Jesse to recover it so he could withdraw his insurance papers. His plea was denied as too time-consuming. Children wailed in corners, several women became hysterical and remained so throughout the night; men sat in chairs with blank faces, their hands lumped in their laps, having lost fortunes: their crabbed savings, the cost of a cottage, the auction sale of six Holstein cows, a laggard Silver Anniversary watch.

Jesse didn’t have any compassion for his fellow gang members either; when chased by the law, he wanted to leave the injured Bob Younger behind to prevent him holding the rest of the gang back. He killed men he suspected of intending to betray him, seemingly without qualm. At times he comes across as psychopathic. He also seems paranoid, probably justifiably so given that large rewards were being offered on his head.

Ron Hansen doesn’t present Jesse as a hero. He even attributes some crimes to Jesse that may possibly have been carried out by others – because of the secretive, criminal nature of the gang it is not certain who exactly was responsible for some of their murders. However, he tries to get some understanding of Jesse as a human being, illustrating Jesse’s tender relationship with his wife and children. He also refers to Jesse’s teens spent fighting as a Confederate guerrilla in the American Civil War, witnessing atrocities and suffering persecution – his stepfather was hanged from a tree by Union militia – and meting out violent retribution in his turn. These events probably formed his adult character, and influenced how he went about his crimes. The James gang’s targets were banks and train companies often owned and run by former Unionists, which is part of the reason the gang had many local sympathisers. Via the editor of the Kansas City Times, John Newman Edwards, Jesse presented himself as a symbol of Confederate defiance. Whether he actually believed this himself, or whether he was self-consciously using the political situation for his own gain cannot be known.

Although it briefly outlines Jesse’s life before he meets Robert Ford, the bulk of book is concerned with the seven months from their first encounter to his murder. The reader is introduced to both Jesse and Bob in the first chapter. We know how this is going to end – I didn’t know any of the history, but the title is quite a giveaway – but this actually adds to the tension. Why and how will it happen?

Bob Ford seems to have had a complex mixture of motivations for killing Jesse, not the least of which was the desire to be notorious and adored by the public in the same way that Jesse was. He never got this admiration, which provides one of the tragic strains running through the book. Bob’s character has an eerie poignancy right from the start of the book:

Bob had snipped two eyeholes from a white handkerchief and this he stuffed under his stove-pipe hat so that it concealed all but his mouth and chin. However, he had cut one hole slightly low and inside of where it should have been, resulting in a mask that gave the impression he was cock-eyed and pitiable, which was not at all what he had in mind.

The novel is an almost seamless blend of history and fiction. It’s absorbing, detailed, and realistic. Most of the story involves Hansen delving deeply into the thoughts of emotions of the characters. However – and I found this a little odd – at times he breaks this absorbing character-identification by referring to future events in the manner of an omnipotent narrator (“In two months he’ll be dead…”) and using phrases such as “It was reported that…”, which have the effect of distancing the reader from the characters and the story. At some points I felt that Hansen was using historical sources too closely rather than his own imagination. Maybe that’s the effect he was after; or maybe it’s an occupational hazard of writing biographical fiction. On the whole, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The dialogue was particularly entertaining, so I’ll end with a snippet of that:

“You ever see that woman over in Fayette could suck noodles up her nose?”

“Don’t believe I have,” said Bob.

“You’ve got canals in your head you never dreamed of.”


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