If you are not familiar with the story, this is from the summary on the back of my edition:
True Grit tells the story of Mattie Ross, who is just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shoots her father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robs him of his life, his horse, and $150 in cash. Mattie leaves home to avenge her father's blood. With the one-eyed Rooster Cogburn, the meanest available U.S. Marshal, by her side, Mattie pursues the homicide into Indian Territory.I really did not know what to expect when I read the book. I did not know much about the author, Charles Portis. I was aware of the book and the movie, but just vaguely and not as something I thought I would be interested in. I won't say I avoided reading the book but there were just a lot of other books I wanted to read more at various times in my life. Before I decided to buy the book, I had read enough reviews to know I should have tried it before and that almost everyone who reads the book has a great affection for it. But still I was surprised.
As most reviewers will say, the best thing about the book is the main character, Mattie Ross, and how she tells the story. She is 14 years old at the time of the story and on a mission to avenge her father's death. She is stubborn and she will manipulate people to get what she wants. She doesn't let her youth, the fact that she is female, or what other people think of her get in her way. She doesn't even seem to realize that her youth and sex are any reason to keep her from making the journey to avenge her father's death.
We do know from the beginning that the story is told by Mattie years after the story takes place. It is not clear until the end how many years later that is and what has happened in the meantime. But it does establish that the story is told from memory and may not be exactly as it happened. Not that it matters.
Here is a sample where Mattie tells the reader about Yarnell, a black man who had worked for her family.
Before Papa left for Fort Smith he arranged for a colored man named Yarnell Poindexter to feed the stock and look in on Mama and us every day. Yarnell and his family lived just below us on some land he rented from the bank. He was born of free parents in Illinois but a man named Bloodworth kidnapped him in Missouri and brought him down to Arkansas just before the war. Yarnell was a good man, thrifty and industrious, and he later became a prosperous house painter in Memphis, Tennessee. We exchanged letters every Christmas until he passed away in the flu epidemic of 1918. To this day I have never met anybody else names Yarnell, white or black. I attended the funeral and visited in Memphis with my brother, Little Frank, and his family.Yarnell takes the train with Mattie to Fort Smith to claim her father's body. Once they are in Fort Smith, they see a hanging of three men, two white men and an Indian man. After the hanging, Mattie says...
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.When scanning through I noticed that use of "crawfish," which I was not familiar with. It means to "retreat from a position."
At this point in the story, Yarnell tries to talk Mattie into going back to her family. She refuses, and she begins her quest to find a man with "true grit" who will help her avenge her father's death.
This is just a great story. There is humor, but not at the expense of taking the story or the characters seriously. And I enjoyed the setting: the American West in the years following the Civil War, the early 1870s. I don't know much about that period and haven't read many Westerns. I will try more Westerns, and I will try more books by Charles Portis.
Since the 2010 remake of True Grit by the Coen brothers was my impetus to read the book, I will comment on my take on the film. I am a fan of the Coen brothers films, and I was not disappointed. I also like the actors who played the main male roles, Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon. I expected that they would do a good job with the roles and they did. Hailee Steinfeld did a great job of portraying Mattie. I thought she would be too pretty for the part but she plays it perfectly and is totally believable in all of the adventurous, scary parts. I won't say the movie stuck to the book line by line but it was very close.
Before buying this book, I had purchased an anthology of short fiction and nonfiction by Charles Portis, titled Escape Velocity. I found that book on the half price table at my local independent bookstore; I thought it would all be interesting but I was primarily motivated to read the pieces that report on the civil rights movement for the New York Herald Tribune, including protests in Birmingham (my home town), and Alabama governor George Wallace’s stand to prevent admission to African American students at the University of Alabama. I was in Alabama during all of these events, although my memory of George Wallaces' stand at the University is much clearer. Here is a good review of Escape Velocity at The New York Times.
Publisher: The Overlook Press, 2016 (orig. pub. 1968)
Length: 224 pages
Format: Trade paperback
Setting: Arkansas, Indian territory
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: I purchased my copy.