by Matthew McEver
Before the rise of the post-Vietnam Western, the fictional Western was considered light entertainment, with coloring book characterizations–black hats and white hats. Ron Hansen, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (1983), tells the story of how Jesse James was assassinated by a member of his own gang. In writing the novel, Hansen had to contend with over a century of folklore, where Jesse James is revered as an antihero, a Confederate sympathizer continuing the Civil War, and Bob Ford is a spineless traitor. Hansen, though, pushes back against the folklore and challenges the oversimplifications by rendering emotionally complex characters.
The core of Assassination is how Robert Ford idolizes the mythic outlaw Jesse James, yet kills him. Hansen’s Bob Ford is a self-described nobody who believes that he is destined to be a legendary gunslinger. Bob becomes James’ protege, but eventually realizes that if he were the man who killed Jesse James, then “America will know who Bob Ford is” (153).
What further complicates matters is the complexity of Jesse James, a villainous yet complicated soul. Jesse is a one-man show, and his robberies often involve understated hijinks. Following the Blue Cut train robbery, Jesse leaves the engineer a dollar “so you can drink to the health of Jesse James tomorrow” (27). After robbing an Iron Mountain Railroad train, Jesse hands the conductor an envelope containing “an exact account” of the robbery so that the newspapers may report the incident accurately (48).
Repeatedly, Hansen offsets Jesse James’ violent nature against his more redemptive qualities. In one chapter, Jesse dresses as Santa Claus for children. In another, he shoots a man in the head. In another, he’s a Methodist choir director.
Not to oversimplify, the emotional power of the novel is grounded in, namely, two methods. One, Hansen’s telling is colored by another narrative, Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus, which lends an emotional component to the text and renders Jesse James as messianic. Second, Hansen creates a moral dilemma for the reader. Hansen recreates an experience for us somewhat analogous to that of Jesse James’ contemporaries. Like them, we are simultaneously taken in and appalled by this false-messiah. Like them, we are enamored with psychopaths.
Where your own writing is concerned, here’s a helpful anecdote and appropriate conclusion. When researching and writing the novel, Ron Hansen determined that “no hard facts, however inconvenient” would be dismissed and “no crucial scenes, however wished for,” would be turned to ends more pleasing to the modern reader (Afterward to Assassination 11). Characters don’t march in line and do our bidding. No matter what we wish for them, they must be who they are. They must, as ugly as this may be, tell the truth not only about themselves, but also about us.
Hansen, Ron. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. New York: Harper, 1983.