In the 1870s, young Mattie Ross learns that her beloved father was gunned down by his former handyman. But even though this gutsy 14-year-old is seeking vengeance, she is smart enough to figure out she can't go alone after a desperado who's holed up in Indian territory. With some fast-talking, she convinces mean, one-eyed US Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn into going after the despicable outlaw with her.
I have, in fact, a great desire to read it again right now.
That desire might, however, have more to do with my state of mind than the quality of the novel. Take it with a (small) grain of salt. I am so in love with this narrative that I have watched the movie more than a dozen times in the past couple of weeks. I have it on whilst I am doing dishes, cooking dinner, etc. Thus, given how enamored I am of the film, I cannot guarantee that my love of the book will be a repeatable experiment for others.
But that should not stop you from reading it. The novel is very swift and, though comic, quite earnest. I enjoyed that it was not sly or ironic -- it captures (as does the recent film), without added mockery, the United States in a transitional moment, that movement from the frontier country to modern America. As with any text that looks at change, it casts an eye most strongly on the ridiculous, highlighting those aspects of past (and, the reader might infer, present) that linger longest because they are most tenacious or most beloved, even as they are stripped of the context that at one time gave them solemnity.
In many ways, this book, published in 1968, is more of a grace note than an elegy -- it does not long for simpler times or gloss the surface of its historical period -- rather, it captures the inherent caricature of reality. Its title accurately reflects the grit (and I mean that both in the sense of toughness and in the sense of plain old dirt) of its descriptions. This is not old Hollywood's west -- this is not the clean and careful scenery within which John Wayne, in 1969, reassured audiences that he could still play a cowboy -- this is not a place in which people fall in love... but it is a place that the reader will fall in love with.
Donna Tartt's enthusiastic and informative afterword reveals that, before John Wayne became the definitive Rooster Cogburn, Portis' novel was considered an American classic and was even featured on high school required reading lists. I look forward to the day when the novel reclaims that standing -- it was, and is, well deserved.
While I know just enough about writing to appreciate how much craft the deceptively straightforward True Grit conceals, I can't say that I was sent over the moon by it. Yeah, yeah, I get it -- the first person narrator Mattie Ross who, being just 14 in the events that she relates, is both more steely and capable than most people believe and more naïve and vulnerable than she believes; the inverted commas over any word or phrase that she prudishly deems "slangy" underscore her fustiness and her comic function; the Twainian notes sounded in describing the farcical and brutal chicanery of the law enforcement and judiciary systems of the 1870s nearly sugar-coat a grim reality; the casually tossed-off references to biblical passages that are, as Stanley Fish pointed out in his "Opinionator" blog for the New York Times on Monday, 27 December, central to a full understanding of the religious underpinnings of the novel (though these underpinnings aren't in the "Jesus-as-good-buddy" mode currently popular in the U.S.) -- all these things point to a deep work of fiction that can be fruitfully plumbed, taught, and finally drained into dessication by swarms of literature professors and critics. (I would also submit that Mattie Ross is an unreliable narrator, but I'm sure that there are at least a few of True Grit's acolytes out there who would shout me down.)
But, while I have more than a little intellectual sympathy for the bleakness and the mordant humor of Portis's creation, it just didn't grab me. I might well re-read it at a future date in the hopes of falling in love, but I'll probably find that I'll have to settle for respecting it, not loving it. I'll also likely try at least one more Portis book, but I'll likely settle for reading a library copy, not buying one.
Note: the Coen brothers have remade the film, being released at Christmas, with Jeff Bridges, (one of my favorite actors) playing Rooster! Sounds great!
Told in memoir format, this is a tale of 14 yr old Mattie Ross who sets out from Arkansas in the 1870s to avenge the death of her father. Its short, amusing, harsh and terribly endearing. It's very easy to see why this is a much loved (and much filmed) book.
Mattie's character is simply wonderful, I can't better the description of "harsh innocence and indestructible vitality" and
set against the wild west of bounty hunters, hanging judges and criminal gangs she shines like pure gold. Draped in an adults fore-knowledge adds added poignancy to what could be just a coming or age adventure we can root for and sympathise for at all ages, it also gives the story a deeply satisfying ending. Her co-stars, one eyed, drunk maverick "Rooster" Cogburn and pretty boy LaBoeuf, are perfectly drawn opposites; sniping and rubbing up against each other whilst she runs rings around them.
Character driven though it is, plot is tightly packed and the action sequences superb (if you can ever get the dramatic climax out of head I will be surprised). It’s a book that stays with and makes smile in a sad/happy way. Highly recommended, forget the films just grab the book.
Mattie's voice is distinctive and she describes the other characters forcefully, but well, especially LaBeouf and Rooster Cogburn, the Texas Ranger and Indian Territory Marshall who help her track Chaney, who has fallen in with a band of train robbers who are hiding in the Indian Territories.
An easy and enjoyable read, both for the matter of fact treatment of its subject matter (an unsentimental portrayal of the West before it was civilised) and the fantastic narrator's voice. Portis' portrayal of Mattie is exceptional.
True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross avenging her fathers senseless murder by a low-life drifter, Tom Chaney, that worked for him. The story is told by Mattie Ross, many years later, in a matter of fact tone that is one of her endearing qualities...
"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day."
It becomes clear from the start of the story that Mattie is mature way beyond her years as she boards a train with Yarnell Pointdexter, a black man who Mattie's Papa arranged to look in on his family while he was traveling with Chaney to buy some ponies some "seventy miles as the bird flies" in Fort Smith. She boards that train to claim the body of her father, but as circumstances present themselves, what turned out to be a simple plan to bring her father home became an adventure through Indian territory to avenge her father's murder by hunting down the man who killed him and bring him to justice... the same kind of justice her father received.
What she finds when she gets to Fort Smith is a sheriff who was apathetic at best. The sheriff assumed Tom Chaney the murderer (actually the sheriff didn't even have Chaney's name right) had fled to the Indian Territories, which local authorities have no authority over, but the sheriff had asked for a fugitive warranty on Tom Chaney with the federal authorities, which are the U.S. Marshalls. Were the U.S. Marshalls on the trail yet? Well Mattie Ross was going to take care of all that herself...
"Who is the best marshal they have?"
The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, "I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a helf-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for a sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have."
I said, "Where can I find this Rooster?"
And so the adventure begins. True Grit has been compared to Huckleberry Finn, but there is nothing light-hearted about Mattie Ross or Rooster Cogburn. That's not to say there isn't humor to be found throughout the story, it's just that the beauty of Charles Portis' writing is his ability to let the humor shine through without distracting you from the story. And where that story brings you is across the American landscape shortly after the Civil War. There is this under current of the after effects of a war where neighbor fought neighbor, which helps shape the landscape of men that existed back then. Portis also paints a wonderful picture of the desolation and isolation the wild west had to offer, which is often times romanticized in literature. I could feel the cold through my coat, and the sting of the snow against my face.
If you want to open the pages to memorable characters, great writing, and a story that will have you wanting more, get yourself a copy of True Grit by Charles Portis to read. I can turn to any page in that book now and enjoy just reading a part of it, and it will be one of those books I can see myself rereading some point in time.
People do not give credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.
So begins the account of Mattie Ross, a "cranky old maid" of fifty-five when she tells of how as a young girl she rode with US Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf in 1878 Oklahoma. A good first person story depends on a strong voice, and Mattie's is hilarious, with attitude to burn. She's more than a bit scary, and when at one point LaBoeuf takes a switch to her, I found it hard to blame him. Practical, smart, gutsy, humorless herself and spouting Biblical verses left and right, she's absolutely relentless. Her voice is a bit reminiscent of Harper Lee's Scout or Mark Twain's Huck, but I think the afterward is right in saying she's more akin to Captain Ahab of Moby Dick in her single-mindedness. Meaning to hire a federal marshall to track down her father's killer, she asks someone who is the best marshall--she's given three names, but picks Cogburn because he's described as the "meanest."
And, of course, Rooster Cogburn is an indelible character as well. I haven't seen the recent film with Jeff Bridges, but the portrayal of him by John Wayne certainly left an impression. He's actually too old for Cogburn, who's only thirty-three here, but I think Wayne's depiction is in the right spirit. There are several differences from the film, and I thought the book a great read.
If you are only familiar with the 1969 film starring John Wayne as Marshall Reuben Cogburn, you’ll find that the film, although great fun, is quite different to the book. The original movie is more of a star vehicle for Wayne, who indeed won an Oscar for his role in 1970. The book, however, is narrated entirely by Mattie, who looks back on the adventure she had when she was fourteen on her quest to find Tom Chaney, her father’s murderer. This enabled me to disassociate my reading from the original movie somewhat. I’ve yet to see the Coen brothers’ recent movie, but I’m told it’s very close to the book and rather good – might have to wait for the DVD now though …
We had a lot of discussion about Mattie. Was she really as determined and clever at fourteen, or was she remembering through the veil of age? She certainly stepped up to take on the patriarchal role of her family. We all loved the scene where she bargains with Stonehill, the auctioneer and stock dealer, over her father’s horses. She has such tenacity, backed up with the threat of a writ from lawyer Daggett, that he gives in to the slip of a girl that has wit and brains way beyond normal girls her age. She knows her own mind, when she asks the Sheriff about which Marshall she should hire, she makes an instant decision. I quote ...
“Who is the best marshall they have?”
The Sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Walters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Commanche an it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tought, and fear don’t enter his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T.Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then, but he believes that even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is as straight as a string. Yes I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”
I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?”
Arguably, it is Mattie herself that has the most true grit, as she wears down one man after another. They don’t stand a chance against her, but she couldn’t do it without Rooster’s help though.
The first half of the book is full of wonderful exchanges, between Mattie and Stonehill, Mattie and LaBoeuf (also on the trail of Chaney), Mattie and Cogburn – the dialogue is absolutely sparkling. Once they’re out on the trail, things do drag slightly; there’s too much about Rooster’s ‘biscuits’ and not enough scenery, (something that another classic western story, Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey has in abundance for instance).
Set as it is in the late 1800s, our group felt it had an authentic feel, the casual racism, the hanging Mattie steels her self to see at the beginning, the frontier town and pioneer spirit, we were amazed to find it was only written in 1968. Like Donna Tartt, in the introduction to this edition, we also did a compare and contrast with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, (my review here). Whereas Dorothy is a homemaker in training, Mattie is forging a path away from rather than back home.
Over the past months, I’ve really fallen for Westerns big-time – Lonesome Dove is on my bedside bookshelf now too. This is another great read, and I heartily recommend it especially if, like me, you haven’t seen the Coen brothers’ film yet.
Interesting fictional narrative account of 14-year-old Mattie Ross, who leaves her Arkansas home and heads toward Oklahoma and the Choctaw Indian Territory during an 1870s winter, searching for the "cowardly" Tom Chaney, the man who robbed and killed her father in cold blood. It is her intention to capture him and bring him back to Arkansas where justice will be served. To help her accomplish this feat, she hires the meanest federal marshal she can find: the rarely sober Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn, a man with a dark past, a bad reputation, and a lot of enemies.
Mattie is a truly interesting character. She is incredibly hardheaded and expects to get her way no matter the situation. She doesn't give an inch. I think she often succeeds because she is intelligent, tenacious, doesn't care what other people think, has absolutely no self doubts, and is a master at wearing people down. From the get-go after her father's death, she is making decisions for her family, handling the money, telling her grieving mother not to sign anything until she returns home, directing her family attorney on which documents he should draw up, what they should say, etc. She doesn't ask his advice, she just tells him what to do. She even steamrolls Rooster. She is infuriating but her audacity is hilarious. At 14, she already is set in her opinions and isn't afraid to share them--and is able to back them up with scripture. She's a hoot and a brat.
They are joined by a Texas Ranger, Mr. LaBoeuf, who has spent months himself trying to track down Chaney. He and Rooster both grouse about Mattie's presence, but after several attempts to lose her, they inevitably resign themselves to the fact that she'll be with them when they capture their man. In the end, they make a good team and rely on each other to get out of multiple dangerous situations.
After their journey together and an exciting climax to the story, I was surprised by what was, to me, a sad ending to the tale. It stirs up questions and emotions and what ifs and whys. I think their adventure was just the tip of the iceberg of why this book is considered a classic.
The tale is told by Mattie when she is a much older woman recalling the events from the adventure of a lifetime and remains true to the vernacular of the time and is filled with surprisingly humorous moments. It is a very quick read with strong characters with a good sense of time and place. Recommended to fans of westerns in general or either of the film versions in particular.
Mattie is an amusing, compelling, and believable narrator. The story never flags and is satisfying from beginning to end.
One of the themes that I found quite compelling was the idea of the marshall, Rooster Cogburn, who has a dark side. The reader is never quite certain whether he is truly on the side of the law. But, then the reader does gain a greater appreciation of the limitations of the law in the Wild West. And this brings to mind contemporary examples of controversial cases like Rodney King. At what point do lawmen cross the line, and don’t we in fact appreciate that they often do so?
I am sure that there are other themes within True Grit. However, they are not as readily apparent. I guess I would probably classify this book as a “Beach Book.” It is fun, humorous and entertaining. But, for me it did not have the deep ocean of meaning that I usually prefer in literature.