Tuesday, July 30, 2019

I am Mrs. Jesse James by Pat Wahler

I've spent so much time praying marriage would be an anchor for Jesse. Do you think he'll ever abandon his wandering life and stay home with you for good?

I won this book in a giveaway last fall and had been meaning to read it as soon as it arrived; and then my wife broke her ankle and we moved and I hadn't unpacked this book until a few weeks ago. It was a perfect read for both of my reading challenges this year -- Historical Fiction and Read Harder's challenge 9, "a book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads".

I will confess to some apprehension ahead of starting this book, though. In this current political climate, in which neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and domestic terrorists are getting mainstream platforming, I wasn't sure if we needed historical novels that offer empathetic views of people who were, and remained, problematic in their lifetimes. (I keep wondering if Melanie Benjamin's The Aviator's Wife would be so casually cavalier about Lindbergh's fascism if published now, for example.)

I am Mrs. Jesse James by Pat Wahler
Blank Slate Press, 2018
Personal copy
Historical Fiction and Read Harder

As far I know, Jesse James was unrepentant in his violent support of the Confederacy, proud of his service with William Quantrill, and committed to attacking anything that seemed to support the current government. He wouldn't make my list of historical figures who deserve a humanizing take.

Finishing this book hasn't helped me find an answer to that question. Wahler has written a lovely novel of a woman married to a troubled man; a novel that doesn't pretend to answer for him or make sense of his legacy. Instead, it focuses on this minister's daughter who fell in love with a handsome rogue who couldn't shake his penchant for danger. For good or for bad, Wahler skirts away from judging his political views (or even his military service) in favor of articulating why Zee would have left her stable family to marry her first cousin and trail after him for years.

A little over 300 pages, I rushed through this novel because Wahler manages to convey tension and excitement even though Zee knows virtually nothing about her husband's activities and exploits. Little is known about the real life Mrs. Jesse James, and the figure Wahler evokes felt plausible to me. Certainly sympathetic. A very grounded portrait that counters the outlandish legacy that Jesse James has. This young woman, struck by puppy love, grows into someone who tries to corral her husband into being the good parent she's sure he can be, but tragedy strikes.

This book surprised me and I appreciated that; I even felt a pang of outrage at James' untimely death since I liked our heroine so much. This is Wahler's debut novel, and I'm hopeful she'll pick another less well known figure or era to write about for her next release.


  1. I'm most grateful for this lovely review. Thank you!

    1. This was a great read -- I am eager for your next book (no pressure! ;))

  2. I like that the book stays focused on Zee and what would keep her bonded to a man like that.