I’d never heard of the author Charles Portis before, so I also had no idea that the movie “True Grit” was based his book. When I saw this at my local library branch, I figured “Why not?”. I should state up front that I am not a fan of westerns, however I was peer-pressured into reading “Lonesome Dove” back in high school due to my best friend’s obsession with Larry McMurtry. Thanks to her, I also wound up reading most of some godawful old west romance series, the one where the title of each book was a woman’s name–but hell if I can remember anything that would help me actually find them on the internet* for nostalgia’s sake. Anyway, aside from those few readings many years ago, I’m not usually a fan of westerns (book or movie), but I did like this book. A lot.
I wound up reading it in two days. I would have read all the way through in one go, but I had other things I needed to do instead (and TV to watch). It’s a pretty quick read, and the author’s style is very no-nonsense and flows easily. Charles Portis brings to life the character of Mattie perfectly. I could easily see her as a real person that I might have run into had I lived in her neck of the woods at that time. Ditto for the rest of the characters in the book. I haven’t actually seen the latest “True Grit” movie yet, but from the looks of it the casting of Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfield were spot on. This book also makes me feel like I shouldn’t bother watching the original 1969 version of “True Grit” with John Wayne as the star. I suspect it didn’t capture the tone of the book as well as the Coen brothers’ 2010 version even if John Wayne did win an Oscar for his role as Rooster.
I have to say, when I imagine the Old West in my head, it looks exactly like what Charles Portis describes in this book, right down to how filthy and dirty everything and everyone used to be. Life could be cruel and hard. The stupid and/or the weak didn’t last very long, so it comes as no surprise that Mattie is who she is. She is unflinching and matter of fact in her resolve to do right by her father’s death, keeping her cool despite the hardship of tracking a murderer by horseback during a cold winter and the at times gruesome body count. That she remains completely unflappable throughout is both amazing and yet not surprising considering her background, and I was also quite pleased with the unexpected feminist angle of Mattie’s story. She was a fledgling feminist at 14 whether she meant to be or not (I have a feeling she would just say she was using common sense), and how she lived the rest of her life after her adventure proved to me that my interpretation was correct.
I have found that if I’m going to enjoy a western, it has to be realistic and tell a story that feels genuine. The characters have to have depth and should be capable of more than a one note performance. “True Grit” has all of this and more, and I am glad I broke out of my comfort zone and picked up this book. Charles Portis has four other books he’s written (“Norwood”, “The Dog of the South”, “Masters of Atlantis” and “Gringos”), and I plan to find out if his other novels are as good as this one.
*Thanks to talking with my best friend who remembers these books better than me, I can now share with you the joy that is the Sunfire Series.