Simon & Schuster, 1968, 215 pages
Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas, sets out to avenge her Daddy who was shot to death by a no-good outlaw. Mattie convinces one-eyed "Rooster" Cogburn, the meanest U.S. marshal in the land, to ride along with her. In True Grit, we have a true American classic, as young Mattie, as vital as she is innocent, outdickers and outmaneuvers the hard-bitten men of the trail in a legend that will last through the ages.
The voice of Mattie Ross, an unflappable, undissuadable, unreasonable, and completely indomitable fourteen-year-old girl who leaves home one winter to seek her father's killer, is the best part of this book. The story of True Grit is a very simple one, introduced on page one: Tom Chaney, a hired hand working for Mattie's father, shot him in a moment of drunken stupidity, stole Mr. Ross's two California gold pieces, and fled to the Indian Territories. Mattie is determined to see Chaney brought to justice. She hires Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn to do the job, because she was told that he has "true grit." The rest of the book is a manhunt, moving from one encounter to another, with plenty of shootouts and narrow escapes, but it's Mattie's narration that raises this book above the level of an ordinary western.
Mattie Ross is telling this tale in retrospect as an old woman, but she is still the same judgmental, preachy, humorless Fury she was at fourteen, absolutely self-assured and completely unselfconscious, unable to conceive of ever being in the wrong, whether it's about money owed to her, her sense of justice, or the diabolical nature of cats. From the moment she steps into her story, it's clear that it just doesn't occur to her that there is any other way to make your way through life than by making everyone around you do what you want (because whatever you want is what they should do!). She thinks no more of giving orders to her father's tenants and her own mother than she does of correcting preachers on their understanding of scripture or instructing U.S. marshals in how they ought to perform their duties. Poor Cogburn -- a fat, aging manhunter with a checkered past and a taste for hard liquor -- doesn't know what to make of this little girl who looks like a "talking hat," and never quite realizes that she owned him the moment they met.
Mattie is hardheaded, bossy, and far more precocious than is good for her. The scene in both movies where she walks into a horse trader's office, he laughs patronizingly and gives her a figurative pat on the head, and she proceeds to p0wn his ass by threatening him with "Lawyer Dagget" and absolutely refusing to budge a single inch or give up one red cent, is right out of the book. Mattie was born squeezing a nickel until it screams, and "compromise" just does not compute for her.
Her business sense is exceeded only by her common sense, the latter of which fails only on occasion owing to her being fourteen, whether she's willing to acknowledge that this might represent a certain deficiency in life experience or not. Which of course is how she always gets her way, and also how she gets into trouble. She refuses to let Rooster go into the Indian Territories by himself, and when Rooster joins up with a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf, neither of them can keep her from following them. LaBoeuf is also hunting Tom Chaney, who is wanted for killing a Senator in Texas, and there is a sizable reward for him there. Rooster Cogburn naturally is more interested in sharing the larger reward with LaBoeuf than settling for what Mattie is paying him, but when he points out to her that Chaney will be just as dead if he's hung in Texas, Mattie ain't having none of it. She doesn't care how many Senators he killed in Texas: Tom Chaney killed her father and she wants him to hang for killing her father.
The writing is another charm of this book. It's all delivered in such a straightforward style, the humor is for the reader to discern. The more humorless Mattie is (especially when claiming she "likes a good joke as much as the next person"), the funnier she becomes. Portis's writing is plain vernacular, and when it occasionally begins to sound like purple prose, it's because that's how Mattie writes. Mattie particularly waxes purple when talking about the wages of sin and long-delayed justice, and while telling the reader about this adventure of hers when she was a fourteen-year-old girl in that long ago winter circa 1870, she usually sticks to the story but sometimes cannot rein in her didactic impulses:
I have a newspaper record of a part of that Wharton trial, and it is not an official transcript, but it is faithful enough. I have used it and my memories to write a good historical article, that I titled: "You Will Now Listen to the Sentence of the Law, Otis Wharton, Which is That You Be Hanged by the Neck Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead. May God, Whose Laws You Have Broken and Before Whose Dread Tribunal You Must Appear, Have Mercy on Your Soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous border judge."
But the magazines of today do not know a good story when they see one. They would rather print trash. They say my article is too long, and 'discursive.' Nothing is too long, or too short either, if you have a true and interesting tale, and what I call a graphic writing style, combined with educational aims.
Oh Mattie, I love you. You're such a self-righteous little brat (and an even more self-righteous old lady), and you're actually a little crazy, but in a way that makes one question whether it's really Mattie who's sane and the rest of the world that's crazy. I'd rather have Rooster Cogburn and fifty Texas Rangers after me than Mattie Ross any day.
John Wayne or the Coen Brothers? Don't choose, see them both!
Hollywood screwed up: they actually produced two movie adaptations of True Grit that are wonderful and amazingly faithful to the novel, almost word-for-word.
Usually, even good movie adaptations leave something out or fail to capture the book entirely. As much as I enjoyed Portis's book, I'd have to say that if you see either the 1969 John Wayne movie or the 2010 Coen Brothers movie, you will find very little was left out of the book, and even its tone is mostly preserved. Both were great movies with an all-star cast and remarkably faithful adaptations. All the actors in both versions played their parts perfectly and delivered almost all the lines in the book just as they were written. About the only thing cut from the book was Mattie's occasional monologues about other topics.
I honestly can't say which one was my favorite; I recommend seeing both. Kim Darby, 1969's Mattie Ross, was 22 when the movie was filmed and looked a little old for 14, while Hailee Steinfeld just barely looked her age in 2010. They gave quite different performances but were both very much Mattie.
The movies differ only slightly in the ending; of the two, the Coen Brothers version is truer to the more depressing ending of the book, whereas the John Wayne version pretty much ended it at the Duke riding off into the sunset.
Then Hollywood decided to make a sequel, 1975's Rooster Cogburn. This was in no way based on Portis's book; it was just another John Wayne film on which they slapped on the name of the character he played in the first movie.
Basically, they repeat the plot of True Grit, except instead a spunky 14-year-old seeking justice for her father, it's a spunky 62-year-old Katharine Hepburn. This was a vehicle for the two costars to mug and exchange banter without the need for anything like a plot. Instead of compelling characters, the scriptwriters provided dynamite and a gatling gun. If you're a John Wayne fan, it's not his worst movie, and Rooster Cogburn is kind of badass for an old, going-to-seed lawman, but it certainly adds nothing to the book.
Verdict: The movies are almost as good as the book, but read the book to hear the story told by the toughest little girl ever to roam the Wild West. If Mattie Ross had an ounce of humility, self-consciousness, self-awareness, or reasonableness, she wouldn't be nearly as entertaining, but she doesn't, which makes her awesome. A very simple, engaging story with great characters (even though Mattie outshines them all), True Grit is a true classic which should be enjoyed even by people who don't normally like westerns. Personally, I think it should be on the books1001 list. It may not exactly be "literary," but there are certainly books on the 1001 books list that are neither as "classic" nor as good as True Grit.