Thursday, October 21, 2010

True Grit

True Grit
© 1968 Charles Portis
215 pages

People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened.

So begins True Grit, a novel based on a movie I enjoyed many times in my youth, starring John Wayne as the one-eyed US Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, who Mattie  -- the opening speaker -- hires to help her track down Chaney and the crew of rascals and vagabonds he's gone to ground with. Mattie is a wily, self-assured girl from Arkansas who knows what she's doing and aims to get what she wants. Cogburn thinks a girl such as she has no business riding around in Indian territory looking for crooks, but is powerless to prevent her from following him -- and together, accompanied by a Texas Ranger hunting Chaney for bounty, the two will brave the mountains and take down the gang of Lucky Ned Pepper.

True Grit's most striking characteristic is its prose: simple, rough and oddly formal. I have heard Isaac Asimov's style described as 'unornamented', but Asimov has nothing on Porter, at least in rendering Mattie's tale. Mattie recalls the story in her silver years, and her narrative is in line with her character: bluntly plain, loaded with Puritan sentiments and judgments that sometimes border on inappropriate. She uses no contractions or descriptions: dialogue is flat,  which given the content of the sentences makes for surreal humor.  Characters argue in monotone, exchanging lines like "You take that saucy line too far," and even in a context when they should be yelling or crying, they merely state: "Well, Rooster, I am shot to pieces."  Because I've watched the movie -- which the book is largely true to, only differing in the epilogue -- I could hear the lines with emotional context, but I don't know what others will make of it.

True Grit is essentially a western,  which is a genre I've not read from since childhood. The flat prose struck me as odd, though I suppose it adds to the authenticity in depicting the rugged simplicity of the old west. It's readable, but...I rather prefer the movie. I don't too much like Hattie in either -- though her stubbornness is laudable, I tire of that constant haughtiness -- but the movie has a cantankerous, and sometimes drunken, John Wayne.

True Grit (the movie) on TvTropes


  1. I don't think it's fair to say that the only difference between the novel and film is the dialogue. In fact my memory is that the dialogue is fairly consistent, what differs in the ending of the film which in the book isn't nearly so upbeat.

    My own review is here if you want to compare and contrast!

  2. Oh, yes, that's what I meant -- last night I watched the movie with the book out, and the dialogue remains consistent.

    I followed the movie up with "Rooster Cogburn", the movie's sequel, and noticed that there were dozens of little references in the book that "True Grit" left out, but which "Rooster Cogburn" picked up on. I don't know if you've seen "Rooster Cogburn", but it pairs Cogburn with a lady preacher who borrows from the book's very religious Hattie.

    Not as many one-liners as "True Grit", but "Rooster Cogburn" does have Katherine Hepburn's acting throughout.

  3. *********SPOILERS************

    It's a fair point. But the fact that they made a sequel emphasises my point. In the book Rooster dies.


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.