True Grit


Charles Portis




Date Reviewed:

December 29, 2021

was thinking about Lonesome Dove and how much I enjoyed that book. I thought: "Perhaps I should read some other classic westerns, could they be equally as good?" Admittedly, that is a high bar to hurdle. I know I read Shane many decades ago, but I don't remember how much I liked it; perhaps it merits a reread (I still have an ancient copy on my bookshelf). I made a list of what I think are classic western novels (The Virginian, Centennial, Louis L'Amour, the Last Crossing) and checked out the online catalog. I saw our library had True Grit, and I had seen the movie-remake, so I checked it out. I found True Grit to be an interesting story (its a fast read), but it isn't a "can't miss" book.

True Grit is a first person narrative told by Mattie Ross, a precocious, head-strong young girl living in nineteenth century Arkansas. At the beginning of the novel, Mattie is in Fort Smith to collect the body of her father, Frank, who was murdered by the cowardly Tom Chaney. Chaney was a lazy vagrant that had been hired by Mattie's kind father out of sympathy - Chaney was given work on the farm and an opportunity for a square life. But after a night of drinking and losing at gambling while in Fort Smith (where Ross and Chaney had gone to buy some horses), Chaney shot and killed Frank Ross, stole $150 and the two gold pieces Ross always carried in his belt, and then stole Ross' horse, Judy. Chaney then fled into Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Mattie is incensed by Chaney's evil actions and burns for vengeance. She wants Chaney captured and killed.

The first half of this short novel is all about Mattie Ross in Fort Smith trying to hire the meanest marshall she can find to track Chaney down. Mattie hears about the ornery, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn and decides that he is just the type of man needed to bring Chaney to justice. It takes a long time for the pursuit of Chaney to begin. True Grit is only 256 pages long, and it is not until page 120 before Mattie rides out of town on her new pony, Little Blackie, as part of a small posse. There is a lot of description about Mattie's negotiations with the auctioneer Stonehill to get him to buy back the horses her father bought. There is unnecessary description about Mattie's stay in the Monarch Inn with Mrs. Floyd, and how she comes down with an illness. A Texas ranger named Le Beouf shows up, and he too is on the trail of the murderous Tom Chaney - it turns out Chaney killed a senator in Texas and there is a reward for his capture, dead or alive. I think all of these story tangents are meant to show the reader what a resourceful, determined and clever girl Mattie is, but it doesn't do much to advance the plot.

Once Mattie, Rooster Cogburn and LeBeouf head into Indian Territory, things happen quickly. Almost immediately, they stumble upon the camp of a couple of dimwit outlaws named Moon and Quincy. These two badguys are part of "Lucky" Ned Pepper's outlaw gang, whom Tom Chaney might have joined up with. Violence ensues. It is surprising to read the loquacious speeches of dying thugs. Why don't they moan in pain, scream in terror or swear and curse their unfortunate lot in life? Instead, it seems like matter of fact acceptance that they have been shot, that their life is slipping away. Oklahoma seems like quite a small place - Cogburn seems to know half the people who live there, and where they hang out and who can be trusted. This results in some quick confrontation with Ned Pepper's gang and some more gun play.

I suppose it is the strength of character of the young Mattie Ross that makes this novel unusual. The plot is not complicated, and the epic sense of vastness of the west is entirely missing. Indeed, Oklahoma seems quite small when Cogburn knows everyone who lives there, and it is just a matter of a couple days ride to reach any destination. True Grit does not go onto my list of classic westerns, it does not begin to match the achievement of Lonesome Dove.