True Grit by Charles Portis

George Pelacanos listed True Grit in his Top Ten.

I’ve seen the remake of True Grit that came out a few years ago. I loved it. Which means, I was actually a little leery of reading the book, since usually one will differ strongly from the other.

That’s not the case here. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more faithful book to movie in my life. It was gratifying to read a book that translated so well to the big screen.

The story’s first person narrator is a 14 year old girl named Mattie. It takes place in the “Wild West” after the Civil War. Mattie’s father is shot dead while visiting a town to buy horses by his hired help who was drunk and wanting a fight. He then steals all of her father’s money and two sentimental gold pieces he has, as well as the horse.

Mattie comes to town, the impression given of her mother is of a woman not strong enough to deal with. Mattie is definitely painted (by herself, but also by the fact that she is the one in town to deal with sending her father back home) as a very capable 14 year old.

“Lawyer Daggett had gone to Helena to try one of his steamboat suits and so Yarnell and I rode the train to Fort Smith to see about Papa’s body. I took around one hundred dollars expense money and wrote myself out a letter of identification and signed Lawyer Daggett’s name to it and had Mama sign it as well. She was in bed.”

That’s the first paragraph of the book.

Later:

“Perhaps you can imagine how painful it was for us to go directly from that appalling scene to the undertaker’s where my father lay dead. Nevertheless it had to be done. I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task.”

Mattie is a faithful narrator, giving us all the small details as well as the large ones.

“I got to the Monarch in time to eat. Mrs. Floyd said she had no vacant room because of the big crowd in town but that she would put me up somehow. The daily rate was seventy-five cents a night with two meals and a dollar with three meals. She did not have a rate for one meal so I was obliged to give her seventy-five cents even though I had planned to buy some cheese and crackers the next morning for my daytime eats. I don’t know what her weekly rate was.”

She decides to hire a U.S. Marshall to help her go into Indian Territory to find her dad’s murderer. She asks the sheriff for help as to hire.

“The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that propostion. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.”

She picks Rooster Cogburn. An older man, who definitely shoots first and asks questions later, as Mattie shows by providing the transcript for a trial she watches that Rooster was the US Marshall for. He gets raked over the coals by the defense attorney for this character trait. Later, Mattie goes and finds Rooster and has dinner with him and his Chinese landlord. And we find out that Rooster is also a drinker.

“He was drunk and he was fooling around with Papa’s pistol. He pointed out something on the floor over by the curtain that opened into the store. I looked and it was a big long barn rat. HE sat there hunkered on the floor, his tail flat, and he was eating meal that was spilling out of a hole in the sack. I gave a start but Rooster put his tobacco-smelling hand over my mouth and gripped my cheeks and held me down.
He said, “Be right still.” I looked around for Lee but figured he must have gone to bed. Rooster said, “I will try this the new way. Now watch.” He leaned forward and spoke at the rat in a low voice, saying, “I have a writ here that says for you to stop eating Chen Lee’s corn meal forthwith. IT is a rat writ. It is a writ for a rat and this is lawful service of said writ.” Then he looked over at me and said, “Has he stopped?” I gave no reply. I have never wasted any time encouraging drunkards or show-offs. He said, “It don’t look like to me he has stopped.” He was holding Papa’s revolver down at his left side and he fired twice without aiming. The noise filled up that little room and made the curtains jump. My ears rang. There was a good deal of smoke.”

Rooster agrees finally to go after Tom Chaney. Mattie insists upon going with him. Prior to their leaving, she meets with a Texas Ranger at the boarding house she is staying at.

“Toward the end of the meal a stranger came in wearing two revolvers and made known that he was seeking room and board. He was a nice-looking man around thirty years of age with a “cowlick” at the crown of his head. He needed a bath and a shave but you could tell that was not his usual condition. He looked to be a man of good family. He had pale-blue eyes and auburn hair. He was wearing a long corduroy coat. His manner was stuck-up and he had a smug grin that made you nervous when he turned it on you”.

Later:
“”What is your name?” said he.
“Pudding and tame,” said I.
He said, “I will take a guess and say it is Mattie Ross.”
“How do you know that?”
“My name is LaBoeuf,” he said. He called it LaBeef but spelled it something like LaBoeuf. “I saw your mother just two days ago. She is worried about you.”
“What was your business with her, Mr. LaBoeuf?”
“I will disclose that after I eat. I would like to have a confidential conversation with you.”

Later:

“LaBoeuf showed me a letter that identified him as a Sergeant of Texas Rangers, working out of a place called Ysleta near El Paso. He said, “I am on a detached service just now. I am working for the family of Senator Bibbs in Waco.”

Mattie informs him she needs no help as she has hired Cogburn. Later, LaBoeuf finds Cogburn and talks him into helping. Mattie attempts to keep LaBoeuf out of it, telling Cogburn they do not need his help and she is paying him. But LaBoeuf promises a good amount of reward money for catching Chaney, as he is wanted in Texas for killing a senator.

“I was so mad I could have bitten my tongue off.”

They proposed to leave her behind, but Mattie forces them into taking her, by leaping her horse into the water after they have paid the ferry operator to take her back to the other side, and having her horse swim the water. LaBoeuf is so mad that he actually takes a switch to Mattie’s rear. Finally Cogburn makes him stop and lets Mattie come.

They go in search of Chaney. And run into quite a few outlaws along the way. They find him. One of the fascinating things of this story was seeing these three very different personalities starting out on one foot, but by the end working as a unit and a team, and not in a corporate hoorah meeting’s meaning of the word team, but in the true sense.

The narrative by Mattie is simple, straightforward and very forthright. You always hear of someone being described as forthright, but I don’t think I have ever seen a character or person more forthright than Mattie. She hires Cogburn because he has “true grit”. But the story shows that Mattie herself has the most true grit of all of them. She never stops, even when completely terrified and in danger of her life.

The story ends with Mattie looking back and 25 years later attempting to contact Rooster Cogburn. She never talked to LaBeouf again after the adventure.

It’s a coming of age tale, but one done so masterfully that it doesn’t seem that way at first. It was only as I sat down to write this blog that I came to that realization. I think it’s also because most coming of age stories about girls/women do not involve this type of adventure. If Mattie had been a boy, it would have been glaringly obvious.

This was a great book and it is one that I could see myself re-reading at some point. It’s a shorter book and easy to get absorbed in.

Hope everyone has a great weekend! I am going to be spending the next day attempting to find the phantom bad odor that is haunting my kitchen and living room (and trust me, Greg and I both have spent a lot of time sniffing at everything with our face up to it. It’s coming from nowhere we can find). I’d describe the smell but my description isn’t really fit for this blog haha.

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