For anyone who has seen the variety of movies based on this incident, the overall story will be familiar. Jesse and Frank James team up with three Younger brothers, plus three others, and journey from Missouri to Minnesota to knock off a “Yankee bank.”
Unable to get into the bank safe that fateful day, they shot one of the employees dead before making an escape into a hail of gunfire from Northfield citizens. Two of the gang died on the streets of town, and the Youngers were captured days later. Only Jesse and Frank made it back home.
Boggs’ challenge was to make this all new again with a fresh point of view. And he does. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person. Some are members of the gang; others are local citizens and law officers. There are 23 in all, plus a prologue and epilogue by Cole Younger, remembering the whole episode from the distance of many years later.
|Jesse and Frank James, 1872
From Boggs’ notes at the end, it seems safe to say the book is based on considerable research. So we learn a lot about the men, as well as the Minnesotans whose lives they invaded. Still, it’s a montage and not a complete picture, which makes it as much speculative fiction as history.
Anyway, I liked it. The story begins several weeks before the raid and ends several weeks after. It builds slowly as the men split up once they get to Minnesota and decide on which bank to rob. Then there’s time off for drinking and visits to brothels, as they gradually run through their travel funds.
Curiously, the excitement doesn’t really take hold until after the mid-point of the story when the gang has fled town and is on the run. Shot up and lost, riding stolen horses in dismal autumn weather, they are a sorry lot. Bickering among themselves, regretful and miserable, they are hungry and increasingly desperate. Their clothes have been reduced to tatters.
In this 150th year after the start of the Civil War, the book is a reminder of the sectional animosities that lingered long afterwards. For Confederate supporters, memories of humiliation and abuse at the hands of Unionists still rankled. We are also reminded that the James and Younger boys had ridden with the murderous Quantrill Raiders during that war.
|Cole Younger, 1883
If Boggs casts any of the gang members in a sympathetic light, it’s the Younger brothers: Cole, Jim, and Bob. The impetuous young Bob is the one who gets them involved in the whole misadventure in the first place, and Cole and Jim go along reluctantly.
Cole voices his wish on the day of the raid that there be no casualties. If guns are to be brandished and fired, it is only to intimidate and make noise. That lives were lost anyway, and one of them at his own hand, becomes cause for some remorse. Meanwhile, the badly wounded Bob descends into remorse of his own that he has brought grief to his older brothers.
The fierceness of the Youngers’ self defense as a posse descends on them is also portrayed by Boggs as nearly heroic and super human. Each takes numerous rounds and falls, only to rise again – finally winning the admiration of their captors for their bravery.
The James brothers don’t fare so well. Frank is portrayed as a drunk, given to ugly moods. Though historical accounts vary, Boggs has him be the one to maliciously kill the bank employee. For his part, Jesse seems to believe his own publicity and is overbearing in his grandstanding self-regard. While he runs the show the day of the robbery, he also takes the least risk himself.
This is an entertaining and well-written book. Not always fast paced, it achieves its effect by spotlighting interesting moments in the whole story. Each chapter is like a dramatic monologue, and I’d be surprised if someone has not already thought of translating it to the stage.
Northfield is available at amazon, for the nook, and at Powell's Books and AbeBooks. (Be aware that AbeBooks adds a 1% markup to the total purchase price.)
Picture credits: Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: Francis Lynde, The Taming of Red Butte Western (1910)