True Grit by Charles Portis – Wednesday Westerns Book Review – August

“I have hopes that the marshals will get him soon. His name is Tom Chaney. He worked for us. I am trying to get action. I aim to see him shot or hanged.”

– ‘Mattie Ross’ speaking of her father’s killer in Charles Portis’s True Grit

I’m going to admit right now that I actually read and reviewed this book back in May. I didn’t “mean to,” I intended to just test the first few pages to see if I was going to enjoy it, and the next thing I knew it was past midnight and I was a quarter of the way through the e-book edition I had gotten hold of. The next day I returned to reading this even though I “should have been” reading Riders of the Purple Sage and the day after I decided it was very important for me to take a long bath in the middle of the day so that I could read through the finale uninterrupted.

I have seen both major film adaptions of this story, so of course I knew more or less what to expect. Not too long after reading this novel, I re-watched the 2010 film version, and it is not only just an excellent example of a modern western movie, it also cleaves quite closely to the contents of the book. I would recommend seeing it if you can.

I haven’t seen the 1969 film version recently enough to be able to comment on it, but I recall that it was fun in it’s own way too.

If you’re here celebrating Legends of Western Cinema Week, why not make them a double bill?

Back to the book. I didn’t realize that the book was going to be funny, as well as being a compellingly paced, unapologetic adventure tale. This was a pleasant surprise.

I will say that while greatly admiring the craft on full display in this story, the book does seem to sacrifice somewhat the depth of feeling I’ve found in other classic western tales in exchange for thrust and irreverent asides, many directed towards “authority figures” by our heroine, our point-of-view character, the voice we follow through this tale, the unabashedly opinionated, direct and determined Mattie Ross, recounting how she sought revenge against the man who killed her father.

Deciding that the law will otherwise take an unacceptably long time to track down the killer, and somewhat hampered by being fourteen years old, she hires the toughest U.S. Marshal she can find and, despite his objections, accompanies him, along with a Texas Ranger who is also hunting the killer, although for a different murder, into the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) on the killer’s trail. Thrilling adventure (and violence) ensues.

“At the city police station we found two officers but they were having a fist fight and were not available for inquiries.”

– excerpt from True Grit

Unconventional Mattie did strike me somewhat as a creation of her era (True Grit was first published in 1968) with her apparently innate disregard for many authority figures and traditional expectations – unlike in other westerns where vigilantism often arises in response to the absence of civil authority, here Mattie finds civil authority mostly incompetent and perhaps corrupt, has little time for “Federal people” and depends on individuals (when she must) rather than institutions. She does not appear to exactly enjoy violence but believes it is sometimes necessary – and firmly believes in the death sentence for those who have done great wrong. There are times where she directs the reader to turn to specific passages in the bible to illustrate her convictions, which I have not done but may add a little bit more to those who either know their bible verses well or are intrigued enough to pursue them. She is, in general, a bit puritanical about her beliefs, as I’ve found many teenagers (including my former self) can be.

While not a terrible lot of time is spent finely building up minor characters, the most important characters are brought alive with bright wide paint strokes.

I note that there is some language here that may make some readers uncomfortable – there is use of racial epithets. I do not recall any (other) obscenities, nor do I recall any “romance.”

It occurs to me that this is the first western I have read this year to have a female protagonist. And while I did have hopes of finding this book enjoyable, it exceeded my expectations. It is not very long. (It was originally a short story serial.) If you have yet to read it, it should provide you a fine, modern-paced adventure of a western story, told from the first person point of view. Please let me know if you do read it, and what you think of it!

5 thoughts on “True Grit by Charles Portis – Wednesday Westerns Book Review – August”

  1. I first read Portis’s novel when I saw the movie back in 1969. It was the first of many re-reads and re-watches. Marguerite Roberts used much of the dialogue from the book because how could you not? At a writer’s round-table a few years ago it was discovered that three of the participants felt the same way, naming True Grit as one of their favourite, go-to books.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was very interesting! I didn’t realize the book was so humorous — and being a product of its time makes a ton of sense, obviously, and answers some general feelings I’ve always had on the story (specifically the 2010 film). Still a great story. Thanks for posting this!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I hadn’t thought about how being written in the sixties would have influenced the book’s anti-establishment biases, but I totally see that now.

    I love Mattie Ross, and this book makes me laugh aloud too. I like it better than either of the two film versions.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review, VT — it’s moved me to add both the book to my “to check out of the library list” and the movie “to watch” list. Being sucked into reading when you only meant to glance is a strong recommendation!
    Does the movie have the same (or similar) humor as the book? Because I wasn’t expecting humor from my scant impressions of either — either.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. In short, no, I didn’t find either movie as funny as the book, although I think I did smile a few times.

    Like

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