Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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Overview

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.

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: A Novel

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Overview

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.

Author Biography: I believe that it is risk that energizes a writer," says Ron Hansen. "I am challenged when I write from a woman's perspective or set my work in a historical period, because there is so much more that I have to imagine." Hansen has been imaging fictional worlds since his childhood in Nebraska, when stories of old west outlaws helped shape his future writing. In fact his first two novels, Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, retell Wild West legends. His other novels are Mariette in Ecstasy and Atticus, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Nebraska, a collection of short stories, received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. With fellow novelist Jim Shepard, he edited the anthology You've Got to Read This: Contemporary American Writers Introduce Stories That Held Them in Awe. He also wrote the screenplays for Mariette in Ecstasy and, more recently, for Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Hansen graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, and went on to the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop where he studied with John Irving.Having spent many years as an itinerant scholar, he is now Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J., Professor in Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University in northern California. Hanson earned a Masters degree in spirituality from Santa Clara in 1995.

His strong personal interest in the connection between religion and literature is the focus of his next book, A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction, which HarperCollins will publish in January 2001.

A conversation with Ron Hansen about Hitler's Niece

When did you first hear the nearly forgotten story of the strange love affair between Hitler and his niece, Geli Raubal?

I was reading Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock, and he mentions Geli Raubal several times. I had never heard about her, but was struck by the fact that she was the only woman that Hitler every loved or wanted to marry. I at first intended to write a short story about her, a story that would consider what it might have been like to be loved by this evil man, one of the monsters of the 20th century. Was she seduced by Hitler, was she an accomplice, or was she in love with him? I started reading other books, mostly reminiscences of people who knew her, and as I got into it I realized that there was so much more than a short story. I had a novel.

What was it about Geli's story that attracted you and inspired you to write a novel?

I've long been fascinated by Hitler's character. How did this monster have such control over people and almost win his war? He was an unprepossessing character with no education—seemingly nothing going for him except his incredible oratory skills. Why was that enough to sway a whole country? I thought that by looking at Hitler through Geli's eyes, from her perspective, we might gain some insights.

What did you feel you, as a novelist, could bring to the story that may have eluded historians and biographers?

Historians are stuck with the facts as they've been presented, and in some ways they are facts that were massaged by the machinery of the Nazi party. And, in the case of Hitler, there are enormous gaps. But if you read between the lines, it all makes perfect sense. And that's what novelists do. I try to take the facts and fill in based on what I've observed about human behavior—to try to figure out what would be the likeliest way for a character to get from one point to the next. That's what I've done with Geli Raubal in Hitler's Niece.

And, as a novelist, you needed to get inside Hitler and, sometimes surprisingly, imbue him with human characteristics.

I think the one thing we learn from fiction is that people are never totally good or totally bad. As hard as it is to believe, this has to have been true about Hitler as well. He had that extraordinary ability to dominate and control people, to keep people coming back to him. He had to be more than a selfish bore or people would not have been drawn to him.

Many years after the war, Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, was released from prison and he watched film footage of Hitler for the first time in many years. He said he was struck by how dull Hitler seemed on film, as opposed to how he really was. Hitler must have had qualities that have been lost to history, that we might even label redeeming.

So you think Hitler had a human side?

Human, if not good. But, I believe he was a brilliant actor who could only present himself publicly through these personas. We have no way of knowing how he transmitted this energy, yet the millions of people he seduced could not have all been idiots. He must have been charming. Of course, the idea that Hitler was charming is startling. We think of him as that figure on the podium, spewing vengeance against the Jews.

Back to Geli, who is at the center of the novel. What did you gain by casting the novel from her perspective?

For me, she was the pleasure of the book, because unlike the others in Hitler's circle, she could make wry comments. She treats him with irony, she is not swayed by his politics. She never becomes a Nazi and even holds herself up in opposition to his ideas and gets away with it. She becomes a heroine for these reasons, a stand-in acting the way I hope I could have acted in that situation.

But she doesn't really get away with her ideas? She is killed because of her independence....

True, she is doomed from the very first moment that Hitler falls in love with her. Everyone he ever fell for was doomed, because he didn't know how to have a love affair. Eva Braun had a terrible life, and was force to commit suicide. Renata Mueller committed suicide or was pushed out of a window. I think Geli was murdered.

Yes, of the numerous theories explaining Geli's death, you have chosen the one in which Hitler himself killed her. Did you make this choice for the purposes of narrative drama, or do you believe it is the most plausible solution to the mystery?

It seems clear to me that it was not suicide. Everything goes against that, especially the conflicting testimonies of what happened the day of her death. So, once you say it was a homicide, then you're left with only a few people who could have possibly done it. That Hitler would have allowed someone else to kill her and get away with it is preposterous. It's possible to dream up a scheme where one of the others plotted the killing, but they were so afraid of Hitler than they never could have carried it out. That Hitler did it makes the most sense—he was in love with her and needed to control her. And, even it she did commit suicide, it would have been because of Hitler, so it's metaphorically, if not historically correct to put the blame on Hitler.

Geli is simultaneously repulsed and seduced by Hitler's hypnotic hold. Is this duality symbolic of Germany's seduction?

Yes. I was consciously making that connection. You could say it was true about everyone he came in contact with. He was a seducer, and he did what he could to draw people in. Contemporary accounts talk about how Hitler worked on people—he would spend the first hour he met someone just listening, then after an hour he had that person figured out, and then he used that knowledge to manipulate him or her. They would feel that he was a person that understood them completely. They were in his thrall. All these fierce people who headed the Nazi party and caused irreparable damage and homicides by the score, they all confessed that they felt like children around Hitler. He had some sort of talent for mind control. I used Geli to show that in the same way that he imprisoned her in his apartment, he imprisoned people in a psychological way. In some ways Geli was more resistant, but in some ways she was equally susceptible.

On the surface, your novels might seem very different from one another, but are there common themes or concerns that you find yourself returning to in your fiction?

One thing I would say is that almost all my novels are about outlaws, people on the fringe, outside of normal society. People who don't fit in. Nuns in a cloister are women who have removed themselves from society and yet are trying to establish their sense of worth. Jesse James, the Dalton brothers—all these people feel excluded from the conversation, and yet they have the ambition to realize their goals and they do it in their mangled way. Even Atticus, so in control at home in Colorado, is walking on the fringes when he gets to Mexico. And Hitler and Geli, too, were outsiders.

Once again, as with Mariette in Ecstasy, you've written a penetrating story of a female point of view. Isn't this unusual for a male writer?

I believe that it is risk that energizes writers. I think writers are in many ways contrarians, we like threats. Writers like to imagine things, so the more imagining we get to do, the happier we are as writers and, we hope, the better our work is. I am challenged when I write from a woman's perspective or set my work in a historical period, because there is so much more that I have to imagine. Concrete details are what make fiction believable, what writers need to create for their readers. If I constantly push myself in creating these details, to try to see things the way other people would have seen them, it makes me a better writer. And that, of course, is better for my readers.

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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
“This book is a wonderful achievement.”
Richmond News-Leader
“Here is THE James book . . . Put Hansen on your bedside table.”
Newsday
“Hansen has turned low history into high art. This is a terrific book.”
Christian Science Monitor
“One of our finest stylists of American historical fiction.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060976996
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/1997
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.33 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Ron Hansen is the bestselling author of the novel Atticus (a finalist for the National Book Award), Hitler's Niece, Mariette in Ecstasy, Desperadoes, and Isn't It Romantic?, as well as a collection of short stories, a collection of essays, and a book for children. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Ron Hansen lives in northern California, where he teaches at Santa Clara University.

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First Chapter

Assassination of Jesse James

Chapter One

September 7th, 1881

His manner was pleasant, though noticeably quiet and reserved. He listened attentively to every word that Scott Moore or I uttered but he himself said little. Occasionally he would ask some question about the country and the opportunities for stock-raising. But all the time I was conscious that he was alertly aware of everything that was said and done in the room. He never made the slightest reference to himself, nor did he show the least trace of self-importance or braggadocio. Had I not known who he was I should have taken him for an ordinary businessman receiving a social visit from two of his friends. But his demeanor was so pleasant and gentlemanly withal that I found myself on the whole liking him immensely.
Miguel Antonio Otero
My Life on the Frontier

He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. Green weeds split the porch steps, a wasp nest clung to an attic gable, a rope swing looped down from a dying elm tree and the ground below it was scuffed soft as flour. Jesse installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evening as his wife wiped her pink hands on a cotton apron and reported happily on their two children. Whenever he walked about the house, he carried several newspapers—the Sedalia Daily Democrat, the St. Joseph Gazette, and the Kansas City Times—with a foot-long .44 caliber pistol tucked into a fold. He stuffed flat pencils into his pockets. He played by flipping peanuts to squirrels. He braidedyellow dandelions into his wife's yellow hair. He practiced out-of-the-body travel, precognition, sorcery. He sucked raw egg yolks out of their shells and ate grass when sick, like a dog. He would flop open the limp Holy Bible that had belonged to his father, the late Reverend Robert S. James, and would contemplate whichever verses he chanced upon, getting privileged messages from each. The pages were scribbled over with penciled comments and interpretations; the cover was cool to his cheek as a shovel. He scoured for nightcrawlers after earth-battering rains and flipped them into manure pails until he could chop them into writhing sections and sprinkle them over his garden patch. He recorded sales and trends at the stock exchange but squandered much of his capital on madcap speculation. He conjectured about foreign relations, justified himself with indignant letters, derided Eastern financiers, seeded tobacco shops and saloons with preposterous gossip about the kitchens of Persia, the Queen of England, the marriage rites of the Latter Day Saints. He was a faulty judge of character, a prevaricator, a child at heart. He went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch.

He was born Jesse Woodson James on September 5th, 1847, and was named after his mother's brother, a man who committed suicide. He stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed one hundred fifty-five pounds, and was vain about his physique. Each afternoon he exercised with weighted yellow pins in his barn, his back bare, his suspenders down, two holsters crossed and slung low. He bent horseshoes, he lifted a surrey twenty times from a squat, he chopped wood until it pulverized, he drank vegetable juices and potions. He scraped his sweat off with a butter knife, he dunked his head, at morning, in a horse water bucket, he waded barefoot through the lank backyard grass with his six-year-old son hunched on his shoulders and with his trousers rolled up to his knees, snagging garter snakes with his toes and gently letting them go.

He smoked, but did not inhale, cigars; he rarely drank anything stronger than beer. He never philandered nor strayed from his wife nor had second thoughts about his marriage. He never swore in the presence of ladies nor raised his voice with children. His hair was fine and chestnut brown and recurrently barbered but it had receded so badly since his twenties that he feared eventual baldness and therefore rubbed his temples with onions and myrtleberry oil in order to stimulate growth. He scissored his two-inch sun-lightened beard according to a fashion then associated with physicians. His eyes were blue except for iris pyramids of green, as on the back of a dollar bill, and his eyebrows shaded them so deeply he scarcely ever squinted or shied his eyes from a glare. His nose was unlike his mother's or brother's, not long and preponderant, no proboscis, but upturned a little and puttied, a puckish, low-born nose, the ruin, he thought, of his otherwise gallantly handsome countenance.

Four of his molars were crowned with gold and they gleamed, sometimes, when he smiled. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious lest that mutilation be seen. He'd had a boil excised from his groin and it left a white star of skin. A getaway horse had jerked from him and fractured his ankle in the saddle stirrup so that his foot mended a little crooked and registered barometric changes. He also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.

He was a Democrat. He was left-handed. He had a high, thin, sinew of a voice, a contralto that could twang annoyingly like a catgut guitar whenever he was excited. He owned five suits, which was rare then, and colorful, brocaded vests and cravats. He wore a thirty-two-inch belt and a fourteen-and-a-half-inch collar. He favored red wool socks. He rubbed his teeth with his finger after meals. He was persistently vexed by insomnia and therefore experimented with a vast number of soporifics which did little besides increasing his fascination with pharmacological remedies.

Assassination of Jesse James. Copyright © by Ron Hansen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 15 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Fascinating information but writing style is uneven

    Ron Hansen does an excellent job of portraying the events surrounding the last few years of the outlaw Jesse James and the man-boy who killed him. Robert Ford comes off as a sniveling creepy little coward reminiscent of Dickens' Uriah Heep, but with a driving desire for fame. Jesse James is portrayed as mesmerizing, eccentric, and cruel.

    The writing style was a bit uneven. in some places the book read like a straight up biography and in other places like historical fiction in the style of the Jeff and Michael Shaara (real events with dialogue and inner thoughts supplied by the author's imagination). Overall, a fascinating look at the lives of some very bad men that would have been better if the author had picked one style and stuck with it.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2008

    A reviewer

    This novel is pure genius. It tells a realistic tale about Jesse James and James' assassin, Robert Ford. The novel shows you how the two met, where their relationship led to, where it went wrong, and how it ended, and at the same time is historically accurate. The writing style is exceptional, and you wish that it isn't over the second you turn the last page. A definite must-read if you like history, Jesse James, or if you're interested in how idolizing someone can take a sour turn.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2007

    it was so great

    This book show's the life of Jesse James and his gang and what they went through. And it you read every little detail about Jesse James I highly recommend you buying this book

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Kiola

    She whinnies at the others.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

    Good

    Well written. An enjoyable read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2013

    What I Expected

    After watching the movie I had to read the novel. Enjoyed them both greatly.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2013

    Jordan

    *Rides up on a pure black american standardbred, one of the fastest horses you will ever see.* Howdy there, miss. Need any help with the stragglers?

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    A thoroughbred

    A thoroughbred female galloped in she eould make a good racehorse and good for mating (i dont do realistic)

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    The anglo

    Gtgtb bbt.)) He watches her go.

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 22, 2013

    Jess

    "Ok!", she claps her hands. "My house and ranch is found at "jess house", but you will need to go to either result ten or the second to last result. Ten is inside the barn and the second to last is just a large fenced in pasture." "But, I will not be posting there because I want everyobe to see the description first, before I do!" She continues, "Or, you can read the description, not post and wait here to be loaded up into the trailor", she said then placed her hands on her hips.
    -Jess

    Yoy do realize a "stallion" is a male? Not a breed.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted January 15, 2010

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    Posted June 1, 2010

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    Posted October 26, 2008

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    Posted November 9, 2008

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