A wonderful read and yeah, I've seen both movies, so I already knew the story.
"Well, if you already knew the story, the read must have been a bit antiA wonderful read and yeah, I've seen both movies, so I already knew the story.
"Well, if you already knew the story, the read must have been a bit anticlimactic."
I couldn't put it down, read it in a single sitting; I was hooked from the first sentence:
"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day."
It is the story in a nutshell and joins the famous first sentence from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Raymond Chandler's opening paragraph from The Big Sleep in my pantheon of great openings.
And with this sentence, Charles Portis begins his take on the western dime novel. For those of you who have never encountered one, a dime novel is a ripping good yarn featuring unimaginable feats of derring-do, marksmansip, horsemanship and braggadocio. But Charles Portis has done much more. True Grit, as the title suggests, is a novel of character.
It is written in the guise of a first person memoir from the 1920's by an old woman, Mattie Ross, concerning events that took place in the 1870's. And Mattie Ross is not just central to the story, but central to it's telling and this is the genius of the novel.
In describing several US Marshals operating out of Judge Parker's court in Fort Smith, the Sheriff comes to Rooster Cogburn: "The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking." This is also a fairly good description of our narrator, Mattie Ross. She is a humorless woman, double-tough, and doubt don't enter into her thinking.
Although Mattie is humorless, she is the 'unintentional' source of much deadpan humor. She is a woman endearingly blind to her own flaws and Portis has a good deal of gentle fun at her expense.
Mattie introduces us to Cogburn by way of a (court) transcript quoted at length. It is a wonderfully funny exchange between Rooster and lawyer Goudy who is representing one Odus Wharton. At one point Cogburn is asked which direction he was moving when backing up: "I always go backwards when I am backing up." And much more in the same vein. The point of lawyer Goudy's questioning was to suggest that Cogburn shot dead two members of the Wharton family without so much as a warning. Mattie ignores the humor and inconsistencies in Cogburn's testimony and dwells instead on how dangerous Odus Wharton looked.
Portis has more fun with Mattie and the double (and sometimes overly long) titles of dime novels with Mattie's rejected magazine article: "You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear, have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge."
And so it goes from Mattie's dealings with Col. Stonehill to her inital meeting with Ranger LaBouef to Cogburn's humorous bouts of drunkeness (which she treats merely as a cautionary tale).
True Grit is filled with wonderful dialog. Portis, through Mattie, has flavored that dialog with that peculiar late nineteenth century stiltedness, but not to excess. It is a fine balance and Portis has achieved it.
Yes, the denoument is breathless in the finest tradition of the dime novel although it seemed to me the weakest part of a novel of unrelenting strengths. But I protest too much; I would lamented its absence if he had left it out.
Someday, college English courses will quit discussing plot, symbolism and character and instead dwell on how a skilled author manages to use the tools of his craft to construct characters larger than life but somehow seem real, create a captivating voice in a dark story leavened with a necessary humor, and keep his readers engaged from the first sentence to the last.
Yeah, take that, Thomas Hardy!
An American classic, True Grit deserves a place along side Gatsby and Mockingbird....more