Getting the right man for the job …

True Grit by Charles Portis

This was our Book Group choice for reading in March.  It’s fair to say that while no-one hated it, not everybody loved it like I did.  One thing that we were all agreed on though, was that Mattie Ross was a remarkable young heroine, however irritating she could be.

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 …

“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, my review here).

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.  (9.5/10)

For another review of this book, read John Self’s here.

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I bought my copy.  To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
True Grit by Charles Portis
True Grit [DVD] [1969]

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11 thoughts on “Getting the right man for the job …

  1. My book group read this one too and mainly agreed with your group. Most people were so-so about it, nobody hated it, but nobody, including me loved it either.

    I wrote about it here.

    Are you going to watch the new film? I think I’ll wait until it comes on TV.

  2. I was one of the three out of ten who loved it in our group – Maybe because I’d read a couple of westerns over the past months and enjoyed them, I appreciated it more. I remember going to see the original film though and I’ve always loved classic western movies … Very keen to see the Coen bros movie though – shame I missed it in the cinema.

  3. I originally had no interest in this book at all, but at Christmas my family made me go see the new Coen brothers rendition of it and I loved the film. Enough that I willingly went and saw it again! I’ve heard the new movie is far more faithful to the book, so now I’m looking forward to trying the original material myself. I really loved Maddie! The young actress they cast to play her was really perfect in the role, I think.

    • Brilliant Steph – I’m hoping to go see the film before it leaves the movie theatres, else I’ll be waiting for that DVD.

  4. Sounds like a must-read for me, Annabel!
    I remember seeing the original film, although I was never much of a John Wayne fan, but it was only when you mentioned having it in your TBR pile that I realised it had originally been a book.
    I will be very surprised if you don’t enjoy Lonesome Dove – it has been over 20 years since I last read it but I remember being absolutely enthralled by it and totally lost in the story (probably a good thing as I was confined to bed with a threatened miscarriage at the time and utterly fed up!)
    One of the books I am currently reading is another western, Appaloosa by Robert Parker. Not very far into it at the moment but it gets a thumbs up so far!

  5. While we are on the subject of Western based books, I don’t know if you have ever read any of Thomas Eidson’s books.
    I think a couple of them were made into films, certainly my favourite ,The Last Ride, was made into a film by Ron Howard, called The Missing and starring Cate Blanchett and (I think) Tommy Lee Jones.
    The film was good (with a cast like that how could it not be?) but I thought the book was better and he is well worth a read for a thoughtful take on the Old West.

    • Liz – he’s a name I’ve heard of but not read, so I shall look out for him now. Ta muchly.

  6. I have ummed and ahhhed about seeing the recent film (which I believe is much more like the book than the earlier film was) let alone reading the book, though the way you have described Mattie makes me really want to read the book, precocious might not even cover it – she could annoy the hell out of me or I might love her in a Flavia de Luce way. BUT its a country and western and I am not sure I’m designed for them. Maybe I should see if they have this at the library and take a chance?

  7. I didn’t think I’d like Westerns, but I love ’em Simon. Just think on them as a variant on classic quest novels, with just the setting changed. It’s a short book – I’d take a chance … Being a Coen Bros fan, I’m even more dying to see the film – never seem to get out to the cinema to see grown-up movies these days… so will have to wait for the DVD I guess.

  8. I recently saw the Coen brother’s version and rather liked it, for the most part due to the story and the characterizations (which, I presume, were snatched from the book). Though I’ve read next to no Westerns, they fit my reading tastes perfectly: travel, action, battles, old-school frame of mind and pure adventure. I’ll definitely be reading True Grit.

  9. Biblibio, one of our book group had seen the film, then read the book – and reported that it was very close to the book, so I hope you enjoy it when you get to it. I am loving westerns for all the same reasons as you!

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