Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, “True Grit,” is a story that many of us know, probably more as a result of two very popular movies than of the actual book itself. However, the book is well worth reading independently of the movies. It, along with “Lonesome Dove” and “The Cowboy and the Cossack” make up my trinity of all-time favorite Westerns.
A young girl, Mattie Ross, of Dardanelle, Arkansas, hires Marshal Rooster Cogburn — a man with a checkered past and of questionable character, but of unquestionable grit — to track down her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney. They, along with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (first name never disclosed), who is also tracking Chaney for another murder, travel through Indian Territory where Chaney has joined up with “Lucky” Ned Pepper and his gang of thieves.
There is richness to the language that Portis uses, a surprising formality to our 21st century eyes and ears. Not a black hat or a “howdy pardner” to be found in the book. When Mattie confronts Chaney and orders him to surrender, claiming there is a posse of officers waiting, Chaney responds, “I think I will oblige the officers to come after me.” Brilliant. So much of the richness comes not only from the language, but also from the very humanness of the characters. Colonel Stonehill, Moon and Lawyer Daggett play minor but memorable roles, and Portis uses them as a chef uses a fine spice — just enough, but not too much.
Charles Portis was born in a small town in Arkansas where he worked for a number of Arkansas newspapers, including his college paper at the University of Arkansas. His first novel, “Norwood,” was released in 1966 to mixed reviews. Portis has written a number of other novels, the most recent being 1991’s “Gringos.” He has also written a series of short stories and articles.
In 1968, “True Grit” was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, and it was published as a book later that same year.
As most Western fans know, there have been two excellent movie adaptions of “True Grit,” and it’s always a fun debate to see if your Western friends are fans of the 1969 John Wayne version, or the 2010 Coen brothers remake. I love both, but lean toward the more recent version.