Book Review: True Grit

“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. A young girl, Mattie Ross, of Dardanelle, Arkansas, hires Marshall “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 author Charles 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.

Four horseshoes. And to be clear, if I found a five-legged horse, I’d give “True Grit” five horseshoes.

Note: in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be following this up with reviews of both the 1969 and 2010 movie adaptations.

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