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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  2,747 ratings  ·  300 reviews
One of the great classic tales of The Great American West...

IT IS 1881. Jesse James, at the age of 34, is at the height of his fame and powers as a singularly successful outlaw. Robert Ford is the skittish younger brother of one of the James gang: he has made himself an expert on the gang, but his particular interest - his obsession - is Jesse James himself. Both drawn to
Paperback, 320 pages
Published February 26th 1997 by Harper Perennial (first published October 12th 1983)
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Jul 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Very entertaining.

Well researched historic fiction (or fictionalized history?) and a stark portrait of nineteenth century America. This is also a fair study of the foundations of our western culture, focusing on hero worship, victimization and demonization and our propensity for violence.

Hansen paints a portrait of James that is also an objective rendering of an American Everyman of this time.

Also, the 2007 film adaptation by Andrew Dominik starring Brad Pitt was excellent.

Ashley Sandeman
I fell in love with this book on the first page, with the opening lines,

“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.”

There begins a master class in description that continues until the novel’s end, and the environment becomes almost as large a character as the protagonist himself as Hans
Joy D
Historical fiction of the last few crimes of the James Gang, the death of Jesse James, and the subsequent struggles of those involved in his death, particularly the man who pulled the trigger, Robert Ford. I had purchased this book thinking it was non-fiction; however, it is clearly historical fiction. From subsequent research, it appears to be based on facts. The dialogue, which obviously had to be invented, is believable. James is portrayed as a complex personality. He is simultaneously a remo ...more
Jul 11, 2013 rated it liked it
Jesse James was one arrogant son of a bitch! During a train robbery, he introduced himself to the engineer and the stoker as "Jesse James, the man they'd read so much about." He took a certain pride in his fame, and infamy.

Jesse extricated himself from his heavy coat and laid it on the sofa with his hat. "Did I ever tell you about meeting Mark Twain?"
"He was in this country store and I recognized him, of course, and went over to shake the man's hand and congratulate him on his good w
I mean seriously. What a ****ing book and what a ****ing writer. As an appreciator of fine writing skill, this book was a mind-blowing, mind-buckling, mind-boggling experience. This guy has it hands down over Cormac McCarthy, and that's saying a lot, because McCarthy is a master of American storytelling. But McCarthy is not this. This is a brilliant wordsmithery and I wonder, if it hadn't been made into a movie, would it have been as well read as it was? Every aspiring author or author looking t ...more
Nov 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
What makes this book is the language. Though I am no authority, it has effectively captivated the language we would expect from the time. Hansen is definitely a researcher and it shows, but on top of that, the story seems removed from the contemporary. It breathes forward to us from another time, even though it was probably composed on a computer. The language and tone, generating that removal from the contemporary, provide the elevated platform to be awed at, Jesse James is a realized mythologi ...more
Jun 30, 2015 rated it liked it
This is a very good story but, somehow, I find myself liking the movie better than the book.
There were some great moments, every single time Jesse James & Bob Ford would interract I would hold my breath. Their love / hate relationship was truly fascinating.
That said, I struggled a bit with the writing style which I found a bit dull and dry. For me the excitment and the tension of the story was somewhat lost in all the details and the very uneven pace.
Jul 27, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Mark Kemp
I'm not particularly fond of the term "a writers' writer"--it seems far too dismissive and a little pretentious--but I'm not sure I can find a more fitting description for Ron Hansen, and for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in particular. I've remarked before that there's no one who manages verbs quite as swiftly and beautifully as Hansen does, a feat he repeats here in Jesse James, but I found myself more smitten with his metaphorical descriptions and always-enviable ...more
Aug 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
When this book was made into a movie a few years ago, I heard an interview with Ron Hansen on NPR and I liked the way he talked about writing and fiction and nonfiction and people and characters and God. Then I forgot about him for a long time until I recently decided that I want to start reading westerns and I remembered the title of this book, even though it isn't really a western. At first it was a little bit annoying to me; it seemed like Ron spent too long writing each of his sentences, or ...more
Joshua West
Aug 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: westerns
Ron Hansen entitled this remarkable book "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" not because he agrees that Robert Ford was coward, indeed, Bob Ford spends much of the last third of the book attempting to prove that he was not a coward, instead, Hansen seems to be drawing our attention to the fickle attitudes of a public that romanticized Jesse and demonized Bob. Yet Hansen's Jesse James, while one of the most compelling and well wrought characters ever committed to a novel, ...more
Ayu Palar
Jan 25, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Sindro
Shelves: favorites-ever
Usually, I prefer to watch the book and after that get in touch with the film. But this time, it's the other way around. I watched the film first, and then read the book. Obviously, having watched the film influenced the way I think and feel about the book, but I think I took the right move. It doesn't mean the book is bad, in fact the book is gripping and exciting in its own way. Yet, kudos to the actors, the film has made the experience of reading the book more pleasing. Everytime the name Bob ...more
Aug 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
by Ron Hansen
4 stars
pp. 304

I'd anticipated reading Ron Hansen's book, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for a while before I took the plunge. I'd expected it to captivate me as I really enjoy a good western, but somehow I found myself in a reading bog with this and couldn't force myself to read more than a few pages a day.

Hansen can certainly captivate the feel of the west and his language is authentic as shown b
Patrick Gibson
There is a detachment in the writing style that is unengaged. Once you adjust to this punctuated attitude towards the characters, it is easier to absorb the stark beauty of the words. For example: “He was one to read auguries in the snarled intestines of chickens, or the blow of cat hair released to the wind, and years of bad luck that moated and dungeoned him.” Throw away details like the conditions of Jesse’s teeth or the smell of a sweating horse accumulate unconsciously to create a startling ...more
Miss Poppy
May 31, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Ron Hansen was the first living author of (semi)fiction I'd read in years. I'd seen the movie and LOVED it - my favorite of the year. It reminded me of "Thin Red Line" and I was not surprised to find that the director of Assassination, Andrew Dominik, had been involved with Malick.

The movie is S... L... O... W..., so if you're looking for Bruce Willis type action, skip it. There's a voice over and that's what drove me to the book. I hoped that same poetry would be there and it was.

Who uses the w
Craig Wallwork
Oct 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
By far one of my best reads this year. Maybe even of all time. I had watched the movie adaptation and was always drawn to the narrator monologues and how poetic and well crafted they were. It was only until recently that I discovered they were lifted from a novel written by Ron Hansen. His command of the language at the time, his descriptions and beguiling way he offers up beautiful phrases is sublime. Part history, part fiction, this book serves as both a wonderful anatomy of James and Ford as ...more
Eslam Abdelghany
Dec 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
It's all about the tempo, the plot was skillfully set, alittle bit slow, the interactions, and the outcomes...

concerning the movie, cinematography was really great, the music, and as aspecial note Cassey Affleck performance...
Nov 26, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: z2016
The pacing of this book was excruciating. Mundane scenes like breakfast had so many details and dialogue, then the robberies or gunfights were glazed over. After a while I stopped even trying to care for these characters and their wives and troubles. There was nothing to get excited about.
Feb 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book. Really good blend of history and narrative, and Mr. Hansen took time to really dedicate his audience to understanding of the characters.
Feb 08, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Excellent read
Jan 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
It is not often that I’ll buy a book after enjoying the movie adaptation, but this is something of a special case for me. I saw Andrew Dominik’s film on its release back in 2007 and have adored it ever since. It’s one of those rare movies which I found not only technically superb (a great story well performed, beautifully shot, with a lovely and haunting score) but also deeply affecting on a personal level. I wrote about it here, a long time ago.

After seeing it, I was vaguely aware that it was b
Jul 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: delightful
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, written and directed by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Ron Hansen
8 out of 10

A different version of this note and thoughts on other books are available at:

- and

This is a remarkable film.
With two Academy Awards nominations, including for Best Performance by an Actor in a supporting role, the movie was acclaimed.

It has 25 prizes and a total of 65 nominations, with
Roger Dier
Sep 22, 2012 rated it it was amazing
The story begins with Frank and Jesse James, whose relationship was strained to antagonistic, gathering a bunch of local rubes for one last heist. The story ends with the death of Robert Ford nearly a dozen years later. In between Hansen weaves a fascinating tale of intrigue and violence surrounding many of those who robbed the Chicago & Alton Railroad on Sept. 7, 1881, five years to the day after the James and Younger gang got shot up trying to rob a bank in Northfield, Minn.

Written by Ron Han
May 01, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Look, I don't know how much of the "novel" THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is true; I don't know how much of the dialogue and interaction and actions of the characters actually took place, or were embellished by a very gifted Ron Hansen.

But does it matter? The account of the final days of infamous outlaw Jesse James (and the subsequent final days of his killer) is "historical fiction", in any case (the definitive oxymoron, if you ask me). What does matter is this tigh
Mindy Jones
Jul 06, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I saw the film adaptation of this book several times before reading the book. I love how it tells the story and how it was shot. The photography and music were spot on and the acting was nice too.

After reading the book, it feels like the movie was made to be a sort of companion to the book rather than an adaptation. The two lean on each other and thrive as one piece. They act as a sort of collaborative diptych.

While the book has beautiful meandering descriptions of people and events, the film fo
Oct 14, 2013 rated it liked it
i actually really enjoyed this book, but it slows down after the ... assassination of jesse james by the coward robert ford. two things kept me going: the tone of dreamy matter-of-factness that hansen hits, and the simple fact that i really needed to know what happened to robert ford in the end (it's not a huge surprise, but there is some narrative tension sustained). this could have been probably 25% shorter (i think i've said that about like the past 10 books i've read, maybe it's me). was par ...more
Apr 07, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Fans of literature and Westerns
Recommended to Bart by: Kristin
This book is a real pleasure. Its writing is meticulous and understated.

As the novel opens, Ron Hansen shows great care with his description of Jesse James. Most novels show great care with the opening depictions of their protagonists, though, so as always a reader is advised to say, "Let's wait and see." But as the novel progresses, Hansen's descriptions never lose their detail and never resort to irrelevant imagery.

That is this novel's best surprise. Hansen knows what deserves his ample descri
Jan 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I read this book not long after it came out. I remember liking it a great deal.

I've just re-read it, and I have to say, this is easily one of the best novels I have ever read. The formality of the language, the diction, the sheer brass confidence of the writer, line by line--this work gripped me like nothing else has in a very long time.

I wonder how I managed to just like it the first time. Maybe I had different expectations. Certainly, I am not the same person now I was a couple of decades ago.
The Book Gobbler
Don’t be fooled by the title. This isn’t just a fictional retelling of a murder, of one of the most infamous celebrity assassinations in United States history. This is the story of two lives that once-upon-a-time intersected, and were forever changed, each by the other, for better or worse. Jesse James: train robber, thief, husband, father, ex-bushwhacker and hero to many, at the long and lonely end of his ‘night riding’ ways. Bob Ford: young, impressionable, and desperate to be like his childho ...more
Aug 07, 2013 rated it liked it
When I was writing my MA history thesis, my advisor said to me, "Narrative is the hardest thing to write."

What he meant was that a long string of narrative, devoid of historical argument is difficult because the simple recounting of facts gets really boring after a while.

The story of Jesse James and Robert Ford is far from boring, but the style of this book reads like the narrative portions of a history or narrative non-fiction book. Only a very few times are we allowed access to the thoughts of
Sep 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely, and without any shred of doubt, one of the best books I have read ever. Period. No argument.

Mr. Hansen's writing is so clear and precise that it cuts straight through you. He splendidly weaves the tale of the infamous Jesse James, the lives he touched (and changed forever), as well as paints a complete portrait of the ever-expanding American West (and the industrialization that followed--how everything was changing so quickly). For my money, the novel is quintessential reading, and
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Ron Hansen is the author of two story collections, two volumes of essays, and nine novels, including most recently The Kid, as well as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which was made into an Oscar-nominated film. His novel Atticus was a finalist for the National Book Award. He teaches at Santa Clara University.

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“For the man was canny, he was intuitive, he anticipated everything. He continually looked over his shoulders, he looked into the background with mirrors, he locked his sleeping room at night, he could pick out a whisper in the wind, he could register the slightest added value a man put into his words, he could probably read the faltering and perfidy in Bob's face. He once numbered the spades on a playing card that skittered across the street a city block away; he licked his daughter's cut finger and there wasn't even a scar the next day; he wrestled with his son and the two Fords at once one afternoon and rarely even tilted - it was like grappling with a tree. When Jesse predicted rain, it rained; when he encouraged plants, they grew; when he scorned animals, they retreated; whomever he wanted to stir, he astonished.” 11 likes
“He said, "He was bigger than you can imagine, and he couldn't get enough to eat. He was hungry all the time. He ate all the food in the dining room and then he ate all the plates and the glasses and the light off the candles; he ate all the air in your lungs and the thoughts right out of your mind. You'd go to him, wanting to be with him, wanting to be like him, and you'd always come away missing something." Bob looked at the girl with anger and of course she was looking peculiarly at him. He said, "So now you know why I shot him.” 11 likes
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