Author: Ron Hansen

Published: 1983

Mood: If you’ve been suffering insomnia and desperately need the most miserably boring Jesse James story of all time to knock you right out.


I really liked the movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so I assumed the book would be even better. I love books. Books are awesome.


I don’t love THIS book.


It was a thorn in my side for the last month. That’s four weeks of my life, and I’m no spring chicken. I don’t have weeks to spare.


I couldn’t seem to read more than a couple of pages before falling asleep, night after night. It was so dull that there were nights where I got into bed and then avoided reading at all costs. I’d spend half an hour on Duolingo, another half hour shopping. I opened Pinterest for the first time in five years.


If there was an award for taking every bit of fun out of the story of one of the Wild West’s most famous outlaws, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would win it. But please, don’t give this book an award. Give ME an award for my suffering over its pages.


photo of the paperback The Assassination of Jesse James held up in front of an appaloosa horse standing beside a horse trailer


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one meaty-ass title. You could start reading it and also start to brush your teeth or do your online banking, or bake a pie from scratch, and be done with that task before you go through the title. I’m not going to type it out in full again.


The title IS the perfect elevator pitch for the story, though. Robert Ford wanted so badly to make a name for himself, and he schemed and plotted and conspired his whiny, covetous butt off for years, only to become the man forever known as the coward who shot Jesse James. In the back. While he was unarmed.


The inscription on Jesse James’s tombstone says it all: “Jesse Woodson James, Murdered April 3, 1882 by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.”


The Assassination of Jesse James starts in September 1881, then goes back to 1865 and works its way forwards again through a few select events in the lives of the main characters. Assuming you hadn’t seen the movie, you’d think that would include lots of the good stuff. The James-Younger Gang is a topic rife with thrilling adventure.


Nope. Most of these escapades are only mentioned, while a handful merit a short summary. The majority of the novel is pages upon pages of descriptions of everyday scenes and activities. It’s like sneaking a peek at a famous person’s diary, only to find a chronicle of every single mundane moment of their days.


I understand that this is not a shoot-’em-up Western novel. It’s a character study. It’s about digging into the motivations of Jesse James and Bob Ford. It’s about deconstructing the idea of the ‘heroic’ outlaw Jesse James, and possibly using Bob’s obsession with Jesse as kind of a mirror into the public’s idolization of this murdering outlaw.


There’s one passage in the book, spoken by Governor Crittenden, that captures this theme perfectly:


“A petty thief is generally despised and easily convicted; but one who steals millions becomes a sort of hero in the estimation of many. A man who commits one sneaking murder is regarded as the meanest of criminals and fit only for a speedy halter; but there is an illogical class of persons who cannot restrain a sort of admiration for one who has murdered many and shown no mercy, who has hesitated at no deed of darkness and inhumanity.”


Still, you don’t read a book about Jesse James expecting it to make you feel so bored and cranky that you almost give up reading altogether.


illustration of a moustache that is curled at the ends


Author Ron Hansen’s writing itself is GOOD, and it’s meticulously researched. But The Assassination of Jesse James is a work of fiction with zero likeable characters, low action, snail’s pacing, and way too many names to remember. I’m no good at sports, but I’m pretty sure that’s too many strikes.


Also, the only events that occur in the timeline of the book are all negative situations or failures. Every character is having a bad time. It’s hard to keep reading when the mood is perpetually grim, and Bob Ford is such an entitled, egotistical brat while Jesse is violently moody and mean, and his wife and mother treat him like an untouchable hero who can do no wrong.


Any kind of balance to one of those elements would have helped immensely. We obviously can’t change the likability of the people around Jesse, but more flashbacks to the action in the James Younger Gang’s early days would have helped with the pacing, while still supporting the moody character development.


As a reader you already know from history how the story will end, and after spending so many pages with these two men, you’re not at all sad to see them go. I actually found the last part kind of interesting, like it would have made a better book altogether to just give us the world of Bob Ford after he shot Jesse James.


I’m not saying romanticized, fawning, heavily altered versions of the Jesse James story (hello, American Outlaws!) are better. There’s definitely a valid, important place in literature for deep character studies and authentic descriptions of what everyday life was really like in a certain era.


I just don’t want that moody, miserable drama in my to-read pile.