True Grit is the story of Mattie Ross, a fourteen year old girl from Arkansas who sets out to avenge the murder of her father by the outlaw Tom Chaney. She hires an ornery, old U.S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn and follows him out into Indian territory to take Chaney captive and bring him back to be hanged. A Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf joins them in the hunt, interested in the reward on Chaney’s head from some of his previous crimes. Chaney takes refuge with a lawless band led by Lucky Ned Pepper. When Mattie, Rooster, and the Ranger find him, they find themselves outnumbered and outgunned and in danger from more than just the outlaws.
The striking quality of the first person narrative provides the reader with a clear and indelible impression of the character of Mattie Ross. The only other books I can think of with this memorable of a narrator are Notes from the Underground, by Dostoevsky and I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. Charles Portis has imagined Mattie as an old spinster telling the tale years later, and her crotchetiness comes out marvelously in paragraphs like this one:
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 superstitious ‘claptrap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.
The only reason I ever thought of reading this book is because I enjoyed the movie, the new one starring Jeff Bridges. Westerns aren’t really my thing, but I loved the dialogue in the Coen brothers’ film adaptation, and somebody told me it was taken almost word for word from the book. After that, I needed to read the book to see just how close it really was to the movie. Apparently, a lot of other people had the same idea as me because I had to wait through some sixty-odd holds at the library before the book became available.
The book, as it turns out, was incredibly close to the screenplay of the new movie. The part where Matt Damon (AKA La Boeuf) almost bites through his tongue wasn’t in there, but I suppose the Coen brothers had to invent something. I was amazed at how well the humor of the book matched with the kind of humor that the Coen brothers frequently use in their movies.
The movie also brought out the Biblical themes of the story with beautiful, cinematic storytelling. One of the key concepts in the book is stated early on by Mattie: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” Mattie is out to make Tom Chaney pay for what he did, but in the end she finds out that but for grace, she would have fallen into the same bottomless pit as Tom Chaney.
The Coen brothers play on this theme of grace by using the old hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” One review that I read talked about how Mattie, when she trusts in her own strength to save her, falls into the snake pit. Rooster Cogburn pulls her out of the pit, but she loses her own arm as a reminder to always lean on the everlasting arms.
True Grit was written in 1968 and the author, Charles Portis, is still alive in Little Rock, Arkansas. According to a description in a New York Times article, however, he is “allergic to fame.”
Mr. Portis doesn’t use e-mail, has an unlisted phone number, declines interview requests, including one for this article, and shuns photographs with the ardor of a fugitive in the witness protection program. He hasn’t published a novel in nearly 20 years.