The line between justice and revenge blurs considerably in a world in which the reach of the law goes no further than the river’s edge, where outlaws need only cross over into Indian territory to escape the consequences of their crimes. For Mattie Ross, heroine of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit, the uncontested flight of her father’s murderer from justice is simply unacceptable, and when the law proves unresponsive to the crime, she takes matters into her own hands, seeking out and hiring the toughest federal marshal she can find. A drunkard with only one eye, Rooster is nonetheless the man best suited for the job, she believes, ruthless and fearless, with a shoot first and ask questions later kind of style.
Although reluctant at first to take the job, the cold hard cash Mattie produces soon convinces him. Her insistence that she come along on the hunt is laughable to a hardened man like Rooster, for not only is Mattie a girl; she’s only fourteen years old.
Her sharp business acumen, cool head and quick wit give her the impression of one much older, but still she is discounted and almost left behind. Only her fierce determination and willingness to swim her horse across a freezing river secures her place on the expedition to catch Tom Chaney, her father’s killer. The adventure that unfolds when she joins the manhunt with Cogburn and a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (also on Chaney’s trail for another crime) is unforgettable, fraught with dangers and hardship, yet lightened by humorous repartee between the principal characters, whose old-fashioned diction and peculiar turns of phrase take the reader back to a different time, when the world was a very different place.
Very seldom do I come across a book that so moves me, where the characters come alive in my mind, becoming as dear to me as people in the real world. True Grit is that kind of story, progressing at such a pace as to almost be disappointing, so much did I want to linger in the world to which Portis so effectively transports us. But the pages turn quickly with such colorful, descriptive writing, and such dynamic mixture of action, comedy, and profound musings.
I have always been fascinated by young characters who are wise, bold, or skillful beyond their years. I noticed it was a theme in my own writing, from my earliest unpublished works all the way to my most recent book, Portlyn. Something about that kind of confidence and ability in a kid inspires me, and I fancy that children could be so much more if we didn’t pander to them, coddle them, and institutionally restrain them for the first two decades of their lives. Not that I wish for maturation to come too quickly through hardship and necessity, but children could be empowered with far more responsibility and freedom than our culture allows, and I believe we could live in a much happier and healthier world if we treated our children differently.
Where Mattie gets her gumption, we do not know. She just has it, and even though both Cogburn and LaBoeuf were vexed by her presence at the outset of the journey, their respect for her only grows as their journey takes them through trials and perils with little complaint from her. LaBeouf, who was at first so angry at Mattie’s defiance of their orders for her turn back that he drags her off her horse and spanks her, later acknowledges her steadfast spirit, assuring her that she has earned her spurs.
It’s rare for such a good book to be done much justice by an adaptation for the screen, but I have to say that the 2010 version of True Grit, starring Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, directed by the Coen brothers, does about as well as one could hope. Both the book and the movie are highly recommended. I haven’t read any of Portis’ other four novels, though I probably will now that I’ve gotten a taste of his masterful style. So if you haven't yet discovered this gem, you're in for a mighty fine treat!