By Charles Portis
Synopsis (Back cover): On a trip to buy ponies, Frank Ross is shot dead by Tom Chaney, one of his own workers, for a horse, $150 cash and two Californian gold pieces. When Ross's unusually single-minded fourteen-year-old daughter Mattie arrives to claim his body, she discovers that the authorities are doing nothing to find Chaney. Then she hears of Rooster - a man, she's told, who has grit - and convinces him to join her in a quest into dark, dangerous Indian teritory to hunt Chaney down and avenge her father's murder.
This is the second book I've read for the Two Bibliomaniacs 'Book to Movie' challenge, and I have to say I seem to have picked some real winners! True Grit is an amazing book, it's short and fun and action-packed and the characters are all larger than life.
So as the synopsis says, the book follows 14 year old Mattie Ross as she employs a marshal , Rooster Cogburn- a man they say has true grit, to hunt down her father's killer. Mattie, as our narrator, is the stand-out in this book. She's stubborn, precocious, solemn to the point of hilarious, forthright and obnoxiously hard to get rid of. I don't think anyone could accuse Mattie of doing anything half-way or letting people walk all over her, for a 14 year old girl in a man's world she made her wishes clear, and if people tried to spin her a line or cheat her she sure as hell lets them know. There are quite a few parts where Mattie goes head to head with someone much older, bigger and meaner than her but she always comes out on top after twisting their words or meeting their gaze or, when the time calls for it, shooting them with a gun nearly bigger than her. That said there are all these instances where her youth and ignorance of how the world really works comes through. I think that is part of the beauty of her character. While what we're hearing is a recount of the adventure she took part in as a girl, it's narrated by a much older Mattie, and while you can recognise that there are two Matties telling this story, you can't often tell the old from the young. She's this wonderfully fierce and independent girl who bosses people around but also instills a desire in them to protect her and her youthful beliefs.
The story itself is fantastic. It uses a mix of adventure, humour, history and phenomenal characters to capture your attention and weaves a story that is, for want of a better description, timeless. I'd be lying if I said I was an expert on American history or the wild west but the story had a very authentic feel to it. It was written in 1968, but if someone told me it had been written 60-80 years earlier I don't think I'd be quick to doubt them. Portis has a fantastic ability to completely suck you into the time and place of the story and by the end of it I felt like perhaps I had been there, or maybe I knew more about it than I thought I had.
There was perhaps only a couple of reasons that I'd doubt the book was in fact written in the time it was set, and that would be Portis' references to the general way people at that time viewed race, gender, politics and the sticky business of right and wrong. In a story that was about chasing down 'bad-guys' it did seem difficult at time to recognise the good guys from the bad. Rooster, though I loved him, was a bit of a bully and it sounds like his time spent in the confederate army under 'Captain' Quantrill shaped the way he viewed the world and what constituted good and bad. But he wasn't the only one who was far from black and white, all of the characters, except perhaps Mattie, acted on a desire for money, and what that money represented- independence, rest, respectability. These actions led to some bloody scenes, both in the course of the hunt for Tom Chaney and in the recounted scenes that happened in both the near and very distant past. I don't really want to postulate what I thought Portis wanted to pass on to his readers, so instead I'll just leave it by saying that the book, though a rollicking good read and great fun, also gave me quite a lot to ponder on.
I'm going to leave this review quite short since I'll be following up with a film review in a day or two. With a quick scan on Goodreads it doesn't seem like anyone thinks it deserves less than 4 stars, and after reading it myself I'd have to agree that this is a book that anyone could get some enjoyment out of. There is a bit of everything (except romance) for everyone, and the easy flow of the writing will appeal to those of you who read anything at anytime and to those of you who are a bit more particular in what you pick.
My rating: 4/5