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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