Tuesday, June 19, 2007

True Grit – Charles Portis

With the recommendation of one of the authors responding to the Rap Sheet’s inquiry as to the most underrated book, I found a copy of True Grit and read it. The copy I found was a paperback reprint of the story that first appeared in 1968. The cover art included references to the movie that has been seen as a classic with the caption “Now a Rip-Roaring Paramount Movie” emblazoned with black and white photos of the starring cast inset. Relying on my love for the western genre and the promise of a great story that hadn’t really received its due (despite the exposure brought by the movie) I set my cap for an enjoyable few hours between the pages.

I was not disappointed. The background of the story is that Mattie Ross’ father (John) has been murdered by a hired hand while in Fort Smith on business. The hand, known to Mattie as Tom Chaney, was drunk and unruly when he killed and robbed the man who had taken him in and given him honest work. Fourteen-year-old Mattie has come to Ft. Smith ostensibly to claim the body and secretly has determined with herself that she will find her father’s killer and see him brought to justice.

In her quest for vengeance she enlists the aid of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a salty, one-eyed, drinking deputy marshal operating out of the court of infamous “hanging” Judge Isaac Parker. Cogburn is described to the young girl as a man who has “grit” (a highly desirable character trait when hunting down a hardened criminal). As they prepare to set off on the journey—Mattie insists on tagging along—they are joined by Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “LaBeef”) who is himself trailing the murderer for crimes committed in Texas under the name Chelmsford.

While most people equate the title of the book to refer to the rustic Rooster Cogburn (even under the insistence of Mattie Ross), I believe that the epitaph “True Grit” would find a better the headstone marking Mattie’s grave. She has a head for business, a sharp tongue, and a determination that belies her fourteen years. She faces harsh weather, ridicule, and even death with the strength of an experienced rangehand.
One constant distraction in reading this classic—which carries all the marks of a classic—is the prominence of the movie as you read. It is difficult to read Rooster’s words and not hear the voice of John Wayne. While the Duke picked up the character and demeanor of the crusty marshal, the visual was one that fell slightly short of the description (the original had a prominent mustache coupled with the eyepatch). Of the cast in the movie, the one who most closely fit the character portrayed was Kim Darby who played the determined Mattie Ross. I still wonder what was going through the minds of the filmmakers causing them to cast Glen Campbell in the role of Texan LaBoeuf.

Interestingly enough, even with the distractions caused by the movie, I was pleasantly surprised by the faithfulness that the filmmakers held to the original story. The writing and directing helped bring the story to life in a way that most modern movies discount when adapting a novel for the silver screen.

Bottom line—True Grit is a real shoot ‘em up with all the action and adventure needed to make it work. It is written in such a way as to be welcome in an English teacher’s class.

—Benjamin Potter, June 19, 2007

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