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Book Review – Jesse James Soul Liberty, Vol.I

BOOK REVIEW:  Jesse James, Soul Liberty. Volume I. By Eric F. James. Published by Cashel Cadence House, Danville KY. 2012. 411 pages, $36.95, reviewed by Bobbi King of Eastman’s Online Genealogy Newsletter, June 23, 2013. Reprinted here by permission.

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Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter-Dick Eastman

             “Mr. James has conquered the Everest                             of writing a family history genealogy book                                         that is interesting enough                                 for the rest of us to want to read.”

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Eric F. James was asked to take on the task of researching and writing the story of the James family, specifically the many members of the family who merited fair consideration distinct from the myth and legend of the notorious outlaw brothers Frank and Jesse.

Mr. James succeeds in acquainting us with a family of characters who do deserve to be featured apart from the tarnished brothers. The book’s subtitle, “Behind the Family Wall of Stigma & Silence” offers a not-so-subtle hint on the family’s take on their historical connection. Apparently, the more well-informed members of the family vigorously sought to put the kibosh on any kinship to Frank and Jesse James when naïve queries arose.

Mr. James introduces the family:

“In the emerging democracy of colonial Virginia, the early Kentucky frontier, and throughout the American heartland, the James were renowned as community builders, public office holders, ministers of faith, financiers, educators, writers, and poets. From these roots shot Frank and Jesse James.

“Following the Civil War, Frank and Jesse James eclipsed the family’s destiny. War may have splintered the family ideologically, but Frank and Jesse James disjoined the family’s compass and direction, casting a longer and darker shadow on the James family, like no other.

“Like their royal ancestors of old when beset by crisis, the James family turned suspicious and distrustful of its own. The larger James family kept apart from one another, holding in muted reverence what relic of itself that it could. The line of Frank and Jesse James was left isolated, unsupported and abandoned.”

Goaded by family in-laws, the Jesse James family withdrew into a citadel of its own. Their ostracism was enforced by every other family line of the James.

Bobbi king
Bobbi King

Mr. James’ book locates the various families’ residences, describes their personal occupations, details relationships and kinship to one another (a six-generation descendant chart is included), chronicles their military service, catalogs their movements about the regions, and quotes a good deal of material from their letters and journals, which always evokes a personality, a spirit, a temperament.

Mr. James’ research appears to be extensive across a wide variety of sources, with references at the end of the book that contain explanatory tidbits adding even more to the story. The photographs and illustrations, even those blurred by age and decomposition, are vivid and well produced, summoning up their subjects and places.

Jesse James Soul Liberty, Vol. I
Jesse James Soul Liberty, Vol. I, Behind the Family Wall of Stigma & Silence, by Eric F. James

Mr. James, along with Judge James R. Ross, a great-grandson of Jesse James, is a co-founder of the James Preservation Trust. He writes and publishes on the official website of the James family, and is without a doubt the family cheerleader.

His writing is strong, perhaps a bit hyperbolic for my taste, but this is a good book for fans of Western history who want to know the real story. His research supports a claim to authenticity, and his writing keeps us reading.

Mr. James has conquered the Everest of writing a family history genealogy book that is interesting enough for the rest of us to want to read.

A Mountain of Genealogy Comes Down to Earth as Entertaining History

screenshot of book review

“Mr. James has conquered the Everest of writing a family history genealogy book that is interesting enough for the rest of us to want to read.”

Transforming 12 years of genealogy research into a biographical history book that appeals to most any reader who enjoys a good tale, indeed, has been one of the most formidable challenges of my life.

Physically, I’ve never climbed Mt. Everest, though the prospect of doing so often has fascinated me since I was a  teen. I preferred writing to mountain climbing.

Having now climbed the Mt. Everest of turning a massive genealogy database of close to 300,000 related people into an epic view of one family and their panoramic history, and the reflection of their discovery of self in that view, has left me standing on the mountaintop, definitely feeling the chill of the thrill. When I was the author standing alone on the mountaintop, though, I was challenged with bringing that thrill back to earth in an intimate and engaging story for the average reader. This was the most formidable challenge in writing Jesse James Soul Liberty.

Eastman’s Genealogy Newsletter is a primary meeting ground for genealogists and family historians at all levels of experience. From how-to and tech tips to the latest news in archival development and events, Eastman’s covers the full spectrum of genealogical interest. In recent months, the book reviews of Bobbi King have been added as a regular feature.

Bobbi King has reviewed a couple of family history books on Eastman’s before mine. Mostly they appear as personal memoirs, more than an objective history book. So I was very pleased when Bobbi accepted the challenge to review mine.

In her book review of Jesse James Soul Liberty, Bobbi King gently reminds genealogists that a good family history book should be interesting to an audience beyond a book’s own subject family.

As I was inadvertently climbing my Mt. Everest, every step that lead to each successive discovery or view made me wonder, how can someone else see what I do and enjoy the experience of it. The view from the top of the James family’s precipice is spectacular, and each step leading to that view is an insightful reminder of what it takes to make a magnificent mountain. Magnificent mountains always have interesting stories to tell.

– ERIC F. JAMES, Author

Film by Elia Saikaly