The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'True Grit'

Written by Charles Portis, this is the only book of his that I have read.  I saw the John Wayne film back in the day, most probably with my father, a great lover of Westerns, and it’s thanks to him that I am thoroughly obsessed with the genre!  I enjoyed the film, and fell in love with the story of a young girl, Mattie Ross (played by Kim Darby), out to avenge her father’s murder.  I liked the interplay between her and the John Wayne character, Rooster Cogburn.  For reasons unknown even to me, I never got around to reading the book, despite it haunting my ‘to-buy’ list for yonks.  When the 2010 film, starring Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld, came out, I honestly intended to read the book first before watching the film.  But that didn’t happen.  I was finally ‘saved’ a couple of months ago when a dear friend bought the book for me – thank you, W.

It’s not a big book, the story covering just over 200 pages, and I read it in a couple of days.  And mentally kicked myself for having deprived myself of, what could easily have been, years of pleasurable re-reading.

The story is told in first person – one of the few ‘first person’ books I like – with Mattie as the narrator.  And what a splendid companion she is as she recounts, from the perspective of an elderly woman, that fateful episode of her life.  From the opening paragraph we get a sense of her clear, no-nonsense voice …

‘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.  I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two Californian gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

Her observant character is further emphasised in that first chapter as she describes her last sight of her beloved father …

Papa left us on his saddle horse, a big chestnut mare with a blazed face called Judy … He was a handsome sight and in my memory’s eye I can still see him mounted up there on Judy in his brown woollen coat and black Sunday hat and the both of them, man and beast, blowing little clouds of steam on that frosty morn.  He might have been a gallant knight of old.

After Tom Chaney kills her father and escapes with no one chasing him, not even the drummers who had been in conversation with her father only moments before, Mattie’s opinion of the drummers is succinct …

‘[Tom] put a bridle on Papa’s horse Judy and rode out bareback.  Darkness swallowed him up.  He might have taken the time to saddle the horse or hitched up three spans of mules to a Concord stagecoach and smoked a pipe as it seems no one in that city was after him.  He had mistaken the drummers for men.  “The wicked flee when none pursueth”.

Mattie’s courage and level-headedness stand her in good stead when she arrives to claim her father’s body.  On discovering that nothing is being done to pursue and bring Tom Chaney to justice, she decides to stay on and ‘make sure the law is on the job’, and instructs the man who has accompanied her to return her father’s body to their home, saying that ‘Mama knows I can take care of myself … Tell her I said not to sign anything until I get home …

And she knows what she wants.  On asking who the best marshal is, she’s told that ‘… William Waters is the best tracker … The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn.  He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking … LT Quinn brings his prisoners in alive … he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake … Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.’  Her reply – ‘Where can I find this Rooster?

Rooster Cogburn, what a character!  Mattie describes him as ‘an old, one-eyed jasper’, then, almost apologetically puts him at about 40 years of age.  He’s a big man – ‘The floorboards squeaked under his weight’ – not overly bothered by appearances – ‘He was wearing a dusty black suit of clothes’.  He’s a drinker, he’s rude, his service in the Civil War was far from honourable, yet he has his own code.  Despite his seemingly negative aspects, and Mattie’s spiritual resolve, they make a good match.  After much verbal wrangling, Cogburn agrees to Mattie’s proposal to bring Tom Chaney to justice.

They are joined by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, who is also after Chaney, but for a different crime.  Mattie doesn’t want him joining them for she wants Chaney to answer for her father’s murder.  But she doesn’t have a choice, and so the three of them set off.  And the rest of the story is the hunt for Chaney.  For me, the hunt becomes almost incidental; it is the journey and the interplay between the characters, especially Mattie and Cogburn, that lights up the story.

I always thought the ‘true grit’ of the title referred to Rooster Cogburn, but it didn’t take me long to realise that it just as easily refers to Mattie herself.  Thrown into a world she has no experience or knowledge of, her courage and determination to bring her father’s killer to justice drives her on.  Both, Rooster and LeBoeuf, do not want her to accompany them, but she proves herself able to keep up, never grumbling or expecting any special treatment.  When LeBoeuf is ready to give her a whipping to make her turn back, Rooster speaks up for her, and we begin to see a grudging admiration grow in him for the tenacious young girl.

I admire Portis’ style; skilful yet sparing, he achieves a lot, and still moves the story along at a brisk pace.  The characters, right down to the minor ones, are all developed through their respective voices, even though the story is told through Mattie’s voice.  And, despite this, there is no confusion about who is saying what when.  What drives the story along is the dialogue.  And what rich dialogue – by turns biblical, witty and poetic with some profanity thrown in.  I don’t know if people back then in the West did speak in this manner, but it comes across as thoroughly believable.

Through Mattie’s voice, we also see that she is highly opinionated, with the solid black-and-white outlook of youth.  All this stands her in good stead in the rough, hostile, masculine world she finds herself in.  Not content with wanting to bring her father’s murderer to justice, Mattie also makes sure her father’s last business – the horses he bought – is completed satisfactorily.  She refuses to be cowed into accepting anything less than a fair price and a fair deal, much to the exasperation of the man who’d been holding the horses.  When she turns up, yet again, at his office, he is not best pleased …

“I just received word that a young girl fell head first into a fifty-foot well on the Towson Road.  I thought perhaps it was you.”

“No, it was not I.”

Which brings me to the humour.  Portis weaves humour throughout the story, not of the obvious, laugh-out-loud variety, but more black humour.  Like in the scene where Mattie is trying to get Cogburn to agree to her proposal while he’s in the middle of a card game …

“Don’t crowd me,” said he. “I am thinking about expenses.”

I watched them and kept quiet … After a time I said, “I don’t see how you can play cards and drink whiskey and think about this detective business all at the same time.”

He said, “If I’m going up against Ned Pepper I will need a hundred dollars.  I have figured out that much.  I will want fifty dollars in advance.”

“You are trying to take advantage of me.”

“I am giving you my children’s rate …”

“I hope you don’t think I am going to keep you in whiskey.”

When he suggests she try some whiskey, her reply:

“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”

I admit I may have gone a little overboard with this review, but I make no apologies for it, I love the book that much.  I think it’s one of those books that people have to discover for themselves.  One last thing – for me, there is a bonus character that deserves a special mention – Mattie’s horse, Blackie.  I won’t say the role he plays as I do not wish to give anything away, but what a noble character he turns out to be, this ‘fine, spirited pony’.