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The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford (original 1983; edition 2007)

by Ron Hansen

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396827,024 (3.77)19
Member:SethAndrew
Title:The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
Authors:Ron Hansen
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Rating:****
Tags:fiction, film

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen (1983)

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This is a riveting story that reads quickly relative to its dense 400 pages of length. Hansen's writing is so confident and authentic that you as a reader immediately sense you're in the hands of a master. He marries fact and fiction in the most natural way possible; you have to think long and hard to discern where one ends and the other begins. An example:But as (Bob Ford) lifted the dipper he viewed himself in the store window and was discouraged by the picture of a scroungy boy in a ridiculous stove-pipe hat that was dented and smudged, in an overlarge black coat that was soiled and stained and plowed with wrinkles and cinched at his waist by a low-slung holster. He thought he looked goofy and juvenile, so he went inside the store and cruised the aisles. 112He goes onto describe the outfit that Ford picked out, which I assume is accurate and based on eyewitness accounts or maybe newspaper reports. But to describe the thought process behind the purchase takes it one step further. Hansen is actually inhabiting these historical figures, giving them motives and desires and insecurities, and the results are quite convincing.

The matter-of-fact prose -- at times electrifying in its succinctness -- helps with the characterization. Hansen also utilizes a wide variety of colorful imagery and metaphor to describe scenes in altogether unique ways. In the first pages of his description of Jesse James he magically brings him to life with such passages:He could intimidate like Henry the Eighth; he could be reckless or serene, rational or lunatic, from one minute to the next. 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. 6On the next page there's this simple yet utterly effective description of a coat:. . . climbed into a Confederate officer's coat that was rich with the odors of manual labor and was heavy enough to snap the pegs off a closet rack. 7And how about this for an interesting description of a death during a train robbery:. . . Frank McMillan was craning to look inside for himself when a lead ball punched into his forehead above his right eye, stopping his life instantly. His body collapsed just as the air brakes screeched and McMillan too slipped off the slackening train. 92And check out the level of detail when describing Wood Hite's death:Wood said nothing. His eyes were closed. A string of saliva hung from his mouth to the floor and it bowed with each cold draft of air. Martha tugged the blue muffler off and picked the blood-tipped hair from his brow. 151As a visual reader I love writing like this because I can actually see it happening. It definitely has a cinematic quality and I can understand how Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik were so excited about filming it. What's more, the scenes with Jesse James are menacing and nerve-wracking without fail. The way he turns every gesture, glance or word from James into a paranoid delusion or veiled threat is masterful.

So those are all the reasons to read it, but it's not a flawless book. Because it is essentially a chronicle of the preamble and aftermath to one particular event, and because Hansen apparently takes pride in being thorough, providing a beginning and end for every person involved (no matter how minor), the book has a disjointed feel in places. This is notable especially after the assassination itself, and at the beginning of Part 2 when there is an extended aside about the feud between Wood Hite and Dick LIddil.

Also, while it becomes apparent fairly early on that Robert Ford is the main character, we are still left with maddeningly little explanation as to why he chose to act the way he did. Hansen does provide some more insight much later in the novel, when Ford is commiserating with Dorothy Evans a few months before his death, but it's a case of too-little-and-late for my tastes.

Overall, however, it's a captivating book about a fascinating time in the country's history: when it was transitioning from the uncivilized "Wild West" to the more lawful ways of the East. Bob Ford represents this transition in certain ways and thus serves as a supremely intriguing subject. Combined with Hansen's exceptional writing, this is a novel that will please anyone who doesn't require a traditional narrative. ( )
  blake.rosser | Jul 28, 2013 |
I came upon Ron Hansen's western novel, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, through the fantastic 2007 Andrew Dominik film of the same name. After watching the film and hanging onto every piece of well crafted dialogue I went in search of the writers. I found Dominik himself had written the screenplay but based in on Hansen's 1983 novel. I prefer, like most, to read the book before seeing the movie, but when a movie is that good I had to read the original.
The book begins in 1881, with the infamous James Gang meeting Bob Ford, brother to Gang member Charley. It is quickly discovered how young Bob idolizes the leader, Jesse James. Hansen's descriptions of the settings and character are superb. I felt as though I were reading a contemporary account written during the period. The language he uses transport the reader back in time, riding along with the outlaws.
The story next goes into the back story of Jesse, brother Frank and others. The reader is taking onto trains for robberies and into banks for hold-ups, and all along the way Hansen expertly weaves history with story. He has managed to blur the line betwen non-fiction and fiction.
A good portion of the book reads like a historical account of what happened with Jesse James and his bandits. Hansen works the fictional dialogue into the story so well it is easy to forget that it is a novel. All the way to the climax, when the Coward finishes off his hero Hansen maintains a great level of tension between James and everyone out for the bounty on his head.
This book is fantastic. It is no wonder why so much of the dialogue from the film was taken straight from the pages of the book, it is difficult to improve on such exceptional writitng. ( )
  SethAndrew | Jan 25, 2013 |
You'll have to excuse me if this review comes off as a bit of a love letter, I am simply obsessed with this book. Ron Hansen does a magnificent job in recreating the life and times of America's most notorious outlaw, Jesse James. Not only that but we get into the head and life of his assassin, Robert Ford.

I first picked up this book after seeing the completely underrated movie of the same name staring Brad Pitt as Jesse James, and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. The film is simply beautiful. Three hours of pure filmmaking for the love of filmmaking. Even if you don't read the book, do yourself a great favor and see the film. The soundtrack alone, which I listen to to get myself in the mood to write, is worth it.

I also picked this book up because, since I was a little kid I had an unhealthy obsession with everything Jesse James. I had read kid version books of his exploits, glorifying him as the great American Robin Hood. I had seen the horribly historically inaccurate Colin Farrell movie, American Outlaws, and loved it regardless. But this book was something else altogether. It was as close to accurate as one could get to the honestly mysterious Jesse James and the events surrounding his death.

Well researched, and extremely well written, the book opens around Jesse's 34th birthday. His last birthday. It goes into detail explaining things about Jesse, that his enormous legend had left out, half a missing finger, unhealed bullet wounds, an eye condition that made him blink more rapidly than normal, leading Hansen to write one of the most beautiful lines in the book, "...caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept." The vision that line alone conjures up in my head is amazing.

The book continues on to when Jesse and Robert Ford first meet, right before the final robbery of the James Gang. The book stikes a great balance between insights into Jesse's life, and the life he had lived up until that point, and the life of the young nineteen-year-old Robert Ford. Ford is hero obsessed with Jesse after growing up hearing and reading about the man's famous exploits. The phrase "you should never meet your heros" definitely applies in this case. Ford is discouraged that Jesse isn't the man the praise in the papers made him out to be, and Jesse is restless and wandering, lost trying to find the next phase in his life.

Hansen deftly weaves through the psychological pinings of both men. What Hansen constructs is a novel speaking on the weight of fame, the downfall of hopes and dreams, and the naivety of the young seeking glory it can't forsee. It is an excellent book for any history lover, a must read book for anyone into Jesse James, and an all around great read. This was a magnificent portrait of one of America's most loved and most misunderstood criminals. Hansen writes with a clarity that is unrivaled in his genre, and gives the reader insight into a man that didn't seem to even quite know himself. Highly recommended. ( )
  kiwiflying | Jul 18, 2012 |
Gorgeously fictionalized history. As someone who's read several Jesse James biographies (I find the time period and the development of organized crime quite interesting), I was surprised and impressed by the detail and general historical accuracy in this novel; the majority of the "fictional" aspect lies in the assigning of motives to these figures, which any historian would tell you is impossible to do with any certainty in reality. The reader ends up heartbroken for misguided Robert "Bob" Ford, an inclination that, for better or for worse, has stuck with me over the years.

I highly recommend both the book and the Pitt/Affleck movie, which is a faithful adaptation of the text. ( )
1 vote okrysmastree | Oct 27, 2009 |
This book was an experiment for me, as I tend to read neither Westerns nor historical fiction. However, high off a Cormac McCarthy trip and after hearing a recommendation for the movie version I decided to make the attempt. In the end, I unfortunately just couldn't get interested. The historical figures have great potential as characters, but they are not by nature sympathetic, and it was difficult for me to get inside them and understand their motivations. It's a good story, but the telling is almost too biographical -- a lot of narrative detail could have been replaced with character study in my opinion.

I don't think this is a bad book by any means. But not my cup of tea. Hopefully someone can write a positive review for those who may be more inclined to the genre. ( )
  hhhiryuu | Jan 6, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060976993, Paperback)

Hansen re-creates the real West with his imaginative telling of the life of the most famous outlaw of them all, Jesse James, and of his death at the hands of the upstart Robert Ford. James, a charismatic, superstitious, and moody man, holds sway over a ragged gang who fear his temper and quick shooting. Robert Ford, a young gang member torn between worshipping Jesse and taking his place, guns him down in cold blood and lives out his days tormented by the killing.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:45:52 -0400)

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A fictionalized portrait of the legendary outlaw Jesse James, his violent career, and his murderer, Robert Ford, in an epic tale of the Old West.

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