Dodd's affinity for the oversized and the bizarre (No Earthly Notion, 1986; Old Wives Tales, 1984) finally hits a live vein with this almost masterly tale of the hacked-up, shot-at, rank, deformed but still unbeaten feminist apotheosis of the mother of Frank and Jesse James. The story is electrifying: in the 1840's, Zerelda Cole, going on 16, nearly six feet tall, and already a rebel (she has refused to move with her whining widowed mother from Kentucky to the West), meets and marries Robert James, 21, a spellbinding itinerant preacher who no sooner fathers Frank and Jesse (and a child who dies in infancy) and deposits Zerel on a flea-bitten Missouri farm than he rides off into the sunset to minister migrants toward the gold rush, never to be seen again. (Dodd speculates about the effect on three-year-old Jesse: ""Taking careful aim, he shoots his deserting, dreaming father through the heart with one pointed finger, tiny and merciless."") Zerel marries a sweet-hearted local doctor, who later goes mad; she mothers six more children before her favorites, Frank and Jesse, join a wild band of Confederate renegades fighting against the Union soldiers who are overrunning the free state of Missouri. Mamaw is imprisoned; her husband, Pappy, is hung almost to death; and the family grows bitter, acidulous, entrenched. After the war, as is well known, Jesse and Frank join their ex-Confederates to steal gold and spill blood all over the Southwest; and Mamaw, her arm blown off by a Pinkerton man, half her children dead or dying from the violence that her oldest sons bring on the family and farm, her beloved second husband imbecilic from witnessing too much war and death, her favorite son finally shot to death by Robert Ford, an event she has foreseen-Mamaw remains the most entrenched, unyielding and unregretful of them all. At 80, satisfied with the life she's seen, she raises bees, runs a Jesse James museum from the farm, and takes pleasure in frightening small children with her visage. Dodd teaches fiction at Harvard; her historical research appears to be immaculate, and the tale she tells is legend made compelling and fresh. It will raise the hairs on your head.