Was there really a time when people spoke a patois of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and backwoods dialect? It's hard to doubt that there was reading Charles Portis's True Grit. People are always talking about the great American novel, and while the usual suspects are all great, it's also hard to suppress the feeling that this little book should be a front-runner in the contest.
14-year-old Mattie Ross wants justice. A man called Tom Chaney killed her father in a drunken rage, stole his horse and some money, and absconded into Indian Territory somewhere southwest of the Ross family home in Arkansas. Through some grit of her own she enlists the help of a mean former criminal turned U. S. Marshal named Rooster Cogburn to help her hunt Chaney down.
They're joined in their quest by a young Texas Ranger, LaBouef, who takes more convincing than Rooster before he accepts Mattie as a traveling companion. The trio have gunfights, track sign, get drunk (Mattie, a stoic Presbyterian with biblically supported views on the doctrine of election, stays sober), and cross freezing rivers. They do all this speaking like hick orators, educated hillbillies, and eloquent frontierpeople with a penchant for holding forth.
It's the language that draws many readers in. A far older Mattie narrates with a pioneer poetry we might expect from some Western bard. This is good enough, but the dialogue is so well-crafted we wonder how Portis was able to capture so many distinct voices so well and so authentically, so entertainingly, and yet so thoughtfully.
Present everywhere are humor and theology. Mattie is so forthright that much that is funny already becomes outright hilarious, and if you don't laugh out loud while reading True Grit you might want to get your funny bone medically treated. The theology comes in the form of Mattie's constant commentary, the result of a good Reformed education and a reflective nature.
Both movies (the 1969 John Wayne version, and the 2010 film starring Jeff Bridges) are great accomplishments in their own right and good interpretations of Portis's masterpiece. But even if you've seen the movies enough to quote them without thinking about it, you still need to read the book. It's that good.
Is True Grit a comic Western? a coming-of-age tale? an adventure story? a dark epic of revenge, justice, and death? The answer to all these questions, of course, is yes. It is all these things, and yet more— True Grit is the codification of everything the old style of American knew their country to be, the Odyssey of the West, and an immensely rewarding modern classic.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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