Paula's Reviews > True Grit

True Grit by Charles Portis
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Dec 20, 2010

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I decided to read True Grit after having seen the recent remake of the movie based on the novel. I wanted to resolve an issue regarding the portrayal of Mattie as an older woman at the end of the movie. Mattie the narrator in the movie seemed too harsh of a character; not the woman that the 14 year old girl would become. What does the novel makes of her? My conclusion: the movie got the mature Mattie right, but portrayed the young Mattie as a girl who had feelings and affections, perhaps even capable of romantic attachment, whereas the book depicts her as a woman who is, in Steve Harris's words, " at heart . . . an accountant." That's an accurate assessment, I think. Mattie's focus is very narrow (she intends to exact an eye for an eye & won't rest until her father's murderer is either shot or hanged). She doesn't waste much, if any time, on emotion. She reports that her neighbors think that she never married because she loves only money & the Presbyterian Church, which may be about right. However, she does "care" about Rooster Cogburn, her hired gun, if only because he ultimately gets the job done for her. He finishes off Tom Chaney with one last bullet, after 2 of Mattie's own (gutsy as they are under the circumstances) fail to kill him.
It's Rooster Cogburn, the federal Marshall (although always on the shaky side of the law), who registers feeling in this story. Not through what he says, but by what he does. What he does is described by Mattie later in her usual clinical fashion, but her matter of fact telling diminishes none of the emotion. It is the picture of Rooster Cogburn (& I see him as Jeff Bridges throughout, while I don't necessarily see Mattie as she appears in the film) flogging the horse Blackie until he is completely played out, in order to get Mattie to a doctor in time to save her life after she breaks an arm & is bitten by a deadly snake, that resolves the book into something other than just a swashbuckling tale.

Voice (the manner of speaking) is important here. The stilted, almost archaic speech that is so notable in the characters in the film quite accurately translates the written dialog of the novel. Whether an accurate rendering of 19th century southern frontier dialect or rather more a gesture toward Shakespearean drama, I'm not able to judge.

The third main character of both novel & film, the Texas ranger Le Boeuf (it's a hilariously pretentious cowboy & cattle drive sort of name) doesn't come to life in the novel in quite the same way as Rooster & Mattie (Matt Damon fills out Le Boeuf's role in the film more than the same character does in the book), but he does provide a foil for Rooster & some comic moments.

In the final analysis, I enjoyed the book (& probably would have loved it when I was 14 & so hungry for female characters at all, let alone ones with distinctiveness & vitality), but was a bit disappointed with it too. Perhaps I just wanted more of a meta narrative, more context. Context must largely be provided by the reader; the author includes only a few historical names, dates & places. For example, the fact that Rooster, Mattie & Le Boeuf track Tom Chaney across the border into the Choctaw Nation, into Indian Territory is significant. It has meaning, although that meaning must be conjured up by the reader herself, based upon what she already knows. History here isn't written in, but merely alluded to. The author uses references, but with no notes appended, so to speak.
The novel is set not long after the Civil War. Both Rooster & Le Boeuf participated in the conflict, although in quite different fashion. The Civil War depicted here reminds me vaguely of that portrayed in Cold Mountain; a war that took place on the margins, that was engaged in for different reasons, perhaps, than the Official War. If that war was fought to preserve the Union, or break it, to end slavery or continue it, this war seems to have been about other matters. Particularly where regional conflicts are concerned, there are always wars within wars. Some fight, not for principle or the Big Picture, not for freedom or justice, but for hardscrabble matters such as a square meal & a pay day, for adventure or for an opportunity to disguise banditry & lawlessness with a soldier's uniform. Some readers criticized Cold Mountain for having almost failed to mention slavery. The same could be said about True Grit. However, I think this novel is better assessed as history with a small "h" rather than a capital one. Mattie seems to know only one or two things deeply and these remain the same all her life. Her narrow, ethical concerns aren't much different than those of the outlaws whom the trio track. Rooster has done many things in his life before meeting up with Mattie & does many more afterward. He ranges much more broadly. He has seen more & maybe he's come to some conclusions about it all. He's not a romantic or mythic figure, however. He just plays life out.
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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I haven't reread the book since I too was quite young (maybe not fourteen) and I skipped both the John Wayne version and this one. Still I enjoyed your review, especially the more philosophical gambits like "hardscrabble" matters, and "history with a small 'h', plus the references to "Cold Mountain." Do you recommend "Cold Mountain"?
I am interested in your mention of using reference to times and places without context, like "Choctaw Nation." I often bridle a little when I think a writer is using geographical locations and historical events more for suggesting the associations than for creating variants on those associations. For instance, "Choctaw Nation" sounds a bit wild, deserted, lawless, dangerous, and yet is not so necessarily--i.e., the name itself and what it refers to.


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