“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 dray. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”
When you come across an opening as strong and as clear as that, you know you’re in for a real treat. True Grit is probably my second or third favorite Western. It’s ranked alongside other great Westerns like Once Upon A Time In The West and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. I knew True Grit was based off a book and it’s surprising that I never considered reading it, given my love of the movie. Truthfully, the only reason I decided to read this was because a professor suggested I try to replicate Mattie’s voice in my own novel. But once I started the book, I was immediately engulfed in the story and obsessed with the characters.
You can gleam a majority of the story from the opening paragraph. But I’ll write a short synopsis. True Grit follows fourteen year old Mattie Ross as she pursues her father’s murderer Tom Chaney. A former farmhand for the Ross family, Tom Chaney shot and killed Mattie’s father, stole what few possessions he had and rode off into Indian Territory. After recovering her father’s body and making preparations for his funeral, Mattie searches for a marshal who is willing to track Chaney down and either kill him or bring him to justice. She pairs up with Rooster Cogburn, an aging but fierce US Marshal, and LaBeouf, a cocky Texas Ranger. The trio rides into the Territory, hot on the trail of Chaney and the gang of outlaws he’s partnered with.
The strongest part of True Grit is Mattie’s voice. She has both good and bad characteristics, making her feel like an actual human being. She’s resourceful, cunning, strong-willed and possesses a dry sense of humor. Though she’s only fourteen, she demands respect from those around her. She has no issues dealing with adults and talking to men without any sense of decorum or propriety. When others tell her to go home and let the adults handle some business matter, Mattie straightens up, drops the name of her lawyer and continues to work out a deal that will always be in her favor.
“Where is your mother?”
“She is at home in Yell County looking after my sister Victoria and my brother Little Frank.”
“You must fetch her then. I do not like to deal with children.”
“You will not like it any better when Lawyer Dagget gets hold of you. He is a grown man.”
“You are impudent.”
“I do not wish to be, sir, but I will not be pushed about when I am in the right.”
There are many moments like this throughout the story and it will either bring a smile to your face or cause you to laugh aloud.
But Mattie is not the only star of the show. Rooster Cogburn, the US Marshal who is said to possess “true grit,” shines from the time he appears until the his last moment in the story. He’s not a hero or even an anti-hero. He’s just a man hired to do a job and he intends to see it through. He possesses a slight tender side. He often refers to Mattie as “sister” or “sis,” which I thought was absolutely adorable. But he’s also used to the ruggedness of the outdoor,a fact he brings up when Mattie insists on traveling into the Territory with him.
“You never said anything about this. I cannot go up against Ned Pepper’s band and try to look after a baby at one and the same time…You will slow me down and get in my way. If you want this job done and down fast you will let me do it my own way…I will not be stopping at boardinghouses with warm beds and plates of hot grub on the table. It will be traveling fast and eating light. What little sleeping is down will take place on the ground.”
And when we/Mattie finally learn about Rooster’s history, we’re not sure whether to feel sorry for him or be grateful that he made it as far in life as he did. He tells the story in a matter of fact way, with very little emotion and by the end, it’s clear that Rooster sees himself as just another man trying to make a living after the Civil War.
“Do you like being a marshal?”
“I believe I like it better than anything I done since the war. Anything beats droving. Nothing I like to do pays well.”
True Grit has quickly and easily become one of my all time favorite books. While thinking about and writing this review, I actually went back to my Goodreads account to change my rating. There’s so much to say about this story and these characters. Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn will be remembered alongside Jay Gatsby, Scout Finch, Celie (from The Color Purple) and other popular literary characters. I would never demand someone read a book, but I will say that if you haven’t read True Grit you should add it to the top of your To Be Read pile!