Monday, March 21, 2011

True Grit

Tom Chaney makes the biggest mistake of his already despicable life when he murders Mattie Ross’s father and robs him of his horse and the cash in his pockets (including two unusually shaped, and easily recognized, gold pieces). Now he has to deal with Mattie Ross, the murdered man’s fourteen-year-old daughter, a girl who will not rest until she sees Tom Chaney hang for the murder.

Mattie makes the trip to Fort Smith, Arkansas, with two missions in mind: claim her father’s body and send it home for burial, and hire someone to help her capture his killer. The first task is a relatively easy one, but the second is more of a challenge. Mattie, though, knows exactly the kind of man she is searching for and, once he sobers up, U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn seems to be the answer to her prayers. He is a man with true grit enough to match Mattie’s own.

Rooster Cogburn has a history of his own, having ridden with the infamous Quantrill’s Raiders during the Civil War, but he is smart enough to keep the odds in his favor. Not only has he accepted a $100 contract from Mattie Ross to capture her father’s murderer; he also draws a U.S. Marshall’s salary and hopes to claim the bounties being offered on Chaney and others traveling with him. After LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger/ bounty hunter, offers to split the bounties with Cogburn, the two men decide to team up – and to sneak out of Fort Smith early enough to leave Mattie far behind. It would not be that easy.

True Grit is first rate western adventure as seen through the eyes of Mattie Ross, now an old woman recalling the adventure of a lifetime she experienced at age fourteen. Young Mattie sees the world in black and white terms. She wants Tom Chaney to hang for the murder of her father or she wants him shot dead if it proves impossible to take him alive. What’s right is right, and she will not rest until she makes it happen, even if she has to shoot the man herself.

There is adventure in True Grit and there is humor. The more subtle humor stems from the way that the roughest and toughest characters in the book speak their dialogue. Even in the heat of battle, or while throwing personal insults at each other, Cogburn and the rest speak in Mattie Ross’s voice, including her vocabulary and grammatical style. It took me more than a few pages to figure out that the book is more a monologue than a traditional novel. The reader is hearing the elderly Mattie Ross recount her adventures, and each of the characters, from Rooster to Tom Chaney, speaks the way that Mattie would have spoken had she been in their shoes.

It is easy to see why True Grit made Charles Portis’s reputation; it is a shame, however, that Portis wrote so little else. This is one of those books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, and it is good to see that the new movie version has given it new life.

Rated at: 5.0


  1. Prim Mattie does not shy away from the rough language, though....if someone calls someone else a bastard or a sonofabitch, she faithfully reports it without commentary or editing it down to "he used a coarse term"

    I love this book. I made my book group read it then go see the movie (retitled "The Brave" over here).

  2. You're right, Susan. That's part of what cracks me up...even when cursing, Rooster can sound pretty educated and sophisticated for an Old West U.S. Marshall. :-)