True Grit / Charles Portis

When the movie based upon this novel came out in 1969, starring John Wayne, I dismissed both as not worth my time.  This had everything to do with my dislike of John Wayne (he represented the “establishment” to me at the time).  While I am still not interested in seeing the first filmed version of True Grit, I’m happy that I overcame my prejudice about reading the book itself.  The narrator of the story is Mattie Ross, a spunky fourteen year old, and she informs the reader this is “my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw nation when snow was on the ground.”  Frank Ross, her father, was shot by Tom Chaney and robbed of his life and his horse and $150 in cash plus two California gold pieces.  Mattie is from Dardanelle, Arkansas and the time is the 1870s.  Swearing revenge, she leaves her grief-stricken mother in the care of younger siblings and sets out after the hired man who killed her father.  Mattie is no fool, she knows help will be needed to seek Chaney out, who has since fled to the Indian Territory and joined a band of outlaws.  She hires Rooster Cogburn, a U.S. Marshall, a lawman with a checkered past.  He is considered to be a “pitiless” man, and fearless.  He also has a reputation for “pulling the cork.”  While Cogburn is happy to take her money and seek out her father’s killer, he is adamantly opposed to her accompanying him on the hunt.  But Mattie is stubborn and determined not to be outfoxed when he tries to leave without her.  Another party joins them in the chase, a young Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf who has been tracking Chaney for shooting a Texas state senator in a dispute over a bird dog.  The story that follows, as they bicker and then bond as a relentless force, is a delight to read.  What makes it special is the voice of Maggie throughout as she recounts the events as an old woman.  While naïve to the ways of the wide world, she is hardheaded and has more than enough “grit” to match the two lawmen she rides beside.  Portis is an economical writer and not a word is wasted as the story unfolds.  He shows an appreciation of the place and the subtleties of the time he is writing about.  Thanks to the Coen brothers’ movie remake, True Grit has been introduced to a new generation.  It deserves the praise it has received, John Wayne or no John Wayne.  The book is a classic and deserves to be added to the list of “must reads” in the cannon of American literature.

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