Wednesday, July 27, 2016

True Grit: Charles Portis

In early April, my husband and I decided to get a copy of the 2010 film adaptation of True Grit, directed (and written, produced and edited) by the Coen brothers, I decided I wanted to read the book prior to watching the film. I had never seen the adaptation starring John Wayne and Kim Darby. So I quickly acquired a copy of the book and read it almost as soon as it arrived.

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.


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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.


26 comments:

  1. Portis' style is really something - thanks Tracy. I actually found the remake a bit disappointing as it just didn't seem different enough from the original to justify it, though it is brilliantly made and acted - I guess I know the story too well. being a big fan.

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    1. Well, if I was going to comment on remakes in general, I generally don't understand the point. But there have been remakes I liked. I liked the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, but it wasn't any better than the original.

      Aside from that, I haven't seen the John Wayne movie and maybe I will try it sometime. I have grown to appreciate John Wayne more as I get older and try more of his movies. I think you are right about the differences, there were not many, from what I have read.

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  2. I've read something else by Portis and it was a struggle - Dog of the South. I enjoyed the re-make of the film - more than the John Wayne version. I expect I'll read this someday (got a copy) but not in a rush. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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    1. Whenever you read it, Col, I am sure you will find things you like in it.

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  3. Never read this, but adored the John Wayne version of the film when I was much younger. Having read your quotes I think it might be a book I'd like so will see if my county library catalogue has a copy.

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    1. I have heard of very few people who don't like the book, Cath, once they have read it. On the other hand, I don't know why I did not know more about it when it came out, living in the South and all.

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  4. Like Cath above, I haven't read this book, but I loved the John Wayne version of the film. Hated the newer version. May go looking for the book.

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    1. I liked the book more than the movie version I watched, but I like the movie fine too. Someday I will watch the John Wayne version.

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  5. I like the Coen brothers' work very much, Tracy, so I have to say I'm glad you enjoyed it. And the John Wayne version is a classic of American film, I think. Glad you enjoyed the book, too.

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    1. I was very glad to finally read the book, Margot. And learn more about Charles Portis and both of the movies. Lots of material out there about the movies.

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  6. I've never read True Grit, but it definitely sounds like I should. I've actually never seen either of the movies, either.

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    1. TracyK: I have neither read the book nor seen the remake but the original True Grit movie with John Wayne is forever etched in my mind. I cannot imagine reading the book without seeing John Wayne swashbuckling across the screen. I would have guessed the book was written for him to play Rooster.

      I was fascinated in the movie by Maddie's formal and careful manner of speech. It is so different from the usual approach to Western movie speaking.

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    2. Carol, you should definitely read the book. I am sure you would like it. Then maybe try the movies. Either version.

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    3. Bill, you make me more and more interested in seeing the original film version. It would be interesting to see the differences.

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  7. Hey Tracy, I own this book and plan to read it one day. I bought after watching the remake from The Coen Brothers. Must say I didn't really care for the remake and liked the original. I bought several Portis books so I hope to read him one day. -Keishon

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    1. The book is a good read, Keishon. Your take on the remake of the movie is interesting. It was a good representation of the book for me, and I like the actors. I had read that the first movie was less like the book, although opinions on that vary greatly.

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  8. It's on my list. It's on my list - I have to get to it, Tracy. Especially after reading your enthusiastic review.

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    1. I know what you mean, Yvette. I have a list of books that I don't get to but will some day. I would love to know what you think of it when you do get to it.

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  9. I love this book, and both movies. Just a perfect story in every way.

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    1. So true, Patti, which leads me to looking for copies of other fiction by Portis.

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  10. LIke Patti above, I liked both films and love the book. I think Mattie's way of writing/talking is unique and wonderful and wholly memorable.

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    1. Moira, one of the things I found strange at first was that she quoted the Bible but was out for revenge. I guess that is an illustration of how different each person expresses and interprets their religion (whatever it is). And totally in keeping with where she was from and the times.

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  11. Tracy, I had no idea TRUE GRIT, the Jeff Bridges-John Brolin version that I watched and liked immensely, was based on a book. I will seek out Charles Portis' novel and read it. I haven't seen the John Wayne adaptation.

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    1. It is a very enjoyable book, Prashant, and I think they did a good job with the roles in that movie, too.

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  12. Hello Tracy,

    Congratulations on a wonderful review site. I definitely wanted to add a comment to the TRUE GRIT thread, as I stumbled upon Charles Portis because of this book -- I read it in the early 2000s and had never seen the John Wayne film -- and have read each of his five fiction books since then. Interestingly, I had not heard of ESCAPE VELOCITY until your mention of it! My favorite title of his might be MASTERS OF ATLANTIS, which I keep meaning to revisit.

    To me, TRUE GRIT achieves the right balance for effective narrative storytelling: it has a compelling, complicated character; its plot is intriguing and detail-oriented, and makes you want to learn how it resolves; and finally, it has a strong and engaging voice through Mattie Ross, which influences tone, style, vocabulary, and humor. I think I've read it three times now. Very happy to be reminded of it again when I read your review!

    Best, Jason

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    1. Thanks, Jason. I want to get more Portis books to read, I was so impressed with his writing in TRUE GRIT. But maybe read some of ESCAPE VELOCITY first.

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