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Riding with the James Gang: A Luke and Jenny Adventure

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  • Posted March 31, 2010

    great historical fiction about Jesse James

    Nearly everyone knows something about Jesse James, but have you ever heard the old song which says, "It was a dirty coward Who shot Mr. Howard And laid Jesse James in his grave"? If so, did you ever wonder how shooting "Mr. Howard" resulted in laying Jesse James in his grave? Luke and Jennie Bartlett return to find out. After visiting with their grandparents in Dallas, TX, while their father is stationed in Iraq, Luke, Jenny, and their mother travel to western Missouri to see their great-grandmother Katie, who is in her nineties. When they leave, they plan to stop at the nearby Jesse James Museum in Kearny, MO, and the night before another spirit person, a young woman named Kate who lived in the late 1800s, takes them back in time to view the events related to the life of Jesse James, just as the Swamper did with Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, AZ, and the buffalo soldier Paul did with Billy the Kid in Lincoln, NM.
    They began with the Civil War background in which Jesse and his older brother Frank came of age. The boys' mother and stepfather were Southern sympathizers and supported the guerilla tactics of William Clarke Quantrill's raiders against Northern sympathizers. Frank James rode with Quantrill's Raiders and met Cole Younger. Jesse later joined another pro-Southern militia group led by William "Bloody Bill" Anderson. After the war, the boys formed a gang with Cole Younger and his brothers, along with other former Quantrill and Anderson men, to fight the Northern "carpetbaggers" who came into Missouri. They began robbing banks and then robbing trains. Jesse tried to go straight after his marriage to his cousin Zerelda Mimms, even moving to Tennessee for a while and taking the alias John Davis Howard, but seemed to have difficulty getting over his outlaw ways. He returned to Missouri and while living in St. Joseph, under the name Tom Howard, put another gang together that included Charlie and Bob Ford, but the Fords betrayed him to get the reward on his head, and Jesse was shot and killed by Bob Ford at the age of 35.
    There is a note which says, "This book is historical fiction. The story draws on a number of historical references, not all of which are necessarily in agreement with one another..Any and all non-historical characters in this book, including Kate, are fictitious." Books like this which go back in time and tell a story using fictional characters are a wonderful and exciting way for young people to be introduced to important persons and events in history. Author Gayle Martin doesn't shy away from historical controversies. While not glossing over the atrocity of the crimes that Jesse and the others committed, she does strive to "humanize" the characters so that we can at least understand from their standpoint why they did what they did. Also, there are important lessons that are so well illustrated by studying various historical episodes, such as "two wrongs don't make a right" and the Biblical principle that "you reap what you sow." Youngsters should especially find interesting the surprise regarding Kate that is revealed in the end.

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