Title: True Grit
Author: Charles Portis
Genre(s): fiction, historical fiction, western
Length: 235 pages
Published: May 21, 1968
I rarely make a habit of watching a movie/miniseries adaptation of a book before I read it, but there’s a small category of films that sneaks around that rule, and True Grit happens to be one of them. A good friend of mine recommended the 2010 version of True Grit back in September, and though I’d never watched a western I trusted her taste enough to watch it without any context or background—and I loved it from start to finish. It was even more of a delight to learn it was based upon a book. I quickly put the book on my TBR list but didn’t expect to get around to reading it for a while (which is usually what happens with my reading habits). A month ago, however, I found a pristine copy with a greatly discounted price at a bookstore, and once I actually owned a copy, it was only a matter of a week or two before I picked it up and couldn’t put it down.
True Grit is the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross of Yell County, Arkansas circa the 1870s, who enlists the help of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to track down the man who shot her father in cold blood. The resulting tale, told in retrospect by a much-older Mattie, is quick, no-nonsense, and, ultimately, completely riveting. It doesn’t need a more elaborate introduction than that.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much is the compelling style. Mattie recalls her revenge quest many years after the fact, and thus infuses the narration with moralizing, odd tidbits about people’s connections in society, and her opinions on everything from history to religion to animals; at the same time, she’s very frank, unsentimental, and frivolous, and the combination of economy and humor makes every paragraph enjoyable to read. Here’s an example from one of my favorite passages (found on page 32):
“I had hated these ponies for the part they played in my father’s death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is all superstitious ‘clap-trap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8:26-33.”
What better way to enjoy a first person narrator than to hear a story from a character so dynamic and individual? Her world is vivid and intriguing without many of the conventional trimmings of “good writing,” her personal beliefs make her too biased to be reliable while she’s simultaneously trustworthy because of her forthrightness, and the brevity of descriptions combine with older phrases and words make the read quick yet rich. Although Portis’ style is distinctly suited for Westerns (I can’t imagine this working as well with contemporary slice-of-life, for instance, or a fantasy or sci-fi setting that needs more immersion via prose), the quality of the narrator makes it a great example for writers as to how to make a first-person POV an indispensable part of the story as a whole.
The cast of True Grit is small but mighty. The main character and narrator, Mattie Ross, is obviously the star of the show, as evidence by the quote I shared in the previous section. But the other characters are just as individual as she is (and her recollection of them, in part, adds to that uniqueness). Rooster Cogburn, the U.S. Marshall that Mattie enlists to help her track down her father’s killer (Tom Chaney), is a man prone to drinking too much, shooting the criminals he’s tasked with finding, and waxing long about his interesting excursions during and after the Civil War, but is also skilled at what he does and treats Mattie well despite the inconvenience of having a 14-year-old on a manhunt. LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins them in their hunt for Chaney is a bit more subdued in terms of intrigue but provides a good contrast against Cogburn with his intent focus on catching Chaney and his pride in his home state.
The rest of the characters in the story, though usually only there for a select few chapters, still seem like real people because of their quirks and the manner in which they’re presented. Since this is my first Western, I’m not sure how accurate the story is historically, but the unusual, idiosyncratic nicknames and the unadorned way in which people spoke to one another made the story feel authentic, and added a lot of subtle humor along the way.
I love a good plot, and a good complex plot, but sometimes it’s nice to have a story where the main goal is easily defined and unencumbered by subplots and twists. True Grit is the latter, and is an example of how a story doesn’t need to be complex, long, or subversive of expectations to be good. In fact, the story goal is stated in the first sentence:
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenger her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”
It can’t get much simpler than that. There are no frills to the story, but that’s a good thing; in remaining simple, it combines with the narrative style and characters to create a cohesive tone and allows the story to remain vividly in the mind of a reader even once they’re finished. The simplicity of the plot also makes it able to appeal to a wide audience without compromising the integrity of the story itself.
True Grit takes place in 1870s Arkansas, starting in the city of Fort Smith, where the murder took place, to the countryside and Choctaw territory as the main trio hunts for Tom Chaney. The physical aspects of the setting are less prominent—Mattie doesn’t spend a lot of time describing the landscape, the weather, or other sensory information—but the minimal details did not seem lacking. Additionally, because Mattie is recounting the story in retrospect, she inserts a lot of personal opinions regarding things like the history of the state or the background of certain characters, and that creates the feeling that the setting is lived-in and real.
The most potentially-objectionable aspect of the story is the moments of violence: various people are shot and killed, someone has fingers cut off, another person is hit over the head with a large rock, another person suffers a bad fall and gets bitten by a snake. However, these moments aren’t described in gruesome detail, and unless a reader is particularly young, I can’t see these instances being too much for anyone. There’s some cursing, but it’s minimal (to the point where I can’t recall specific instances). Characters—namely, Marshall Cogburn—drink a lot. Because the story is set in the 1870s, there are racial terms used a few times by character that are now considered wrong.
This year has been rather “meh” in terms of reading: apart from The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, I’ve had a hard time finding books that truly wowed me or pulled me in to where I didn’t want to put them down. True Grit was a little blip of that enthrallment, a complete detour from my usual reading preferences, a delightful introduction to Western fiction, and a good reminder that books don’t need to be long or complicated to be meaningful and enjoyable. It also reminded me that, in the hands of a skilled writer, any format or genre can be a joy to read—I generally prefer 3rd person and a bit more elaborate language, but True Grit excels in its 1st person narration and its matter-of-fact style. It is clear about its plot and delivers everything you’d want without excess or shortchanging. For all of those reasons, I give True Grit 5/5 stars.