Saturday, July 08, 2006

True Grit

True Grit is a cult novel by Charles Portis, from which the famous John Wayne movie was adapted. Wayne won his only Oscar from his performance in that movie (I believe), and while it may have been something of a consolation prize for not having been honored over his long career, it has to be admitted that he was absolutely great as Rooster Cogburn. The film is marred by the awful acting of Glenn Campbell as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, but it’s quite entertaining overall. One thing that always puzzled me was the pedantic and precise way that Mattie Ross (played by Kim Darby) expresses herself; it seems an eccentric manner of speech for a 14-year-old Arkansas farm girl.

Now I understand. The novel is a recollection of an elderly Presbyterian spinster. She is remembering this incident in 1928 (Al Smith is running for President), and Rutherford B. Hayes was the President when the events described occurred (so that puts the events in the range of 1877 to 1881). So Portis amusingly gives her—and to a certain extent all the characters—the voice of this old woman.

Mattie Ross is an extremely strong-willed young woman, and one gets the feeling that this search in the Indian territories (later the state of Oklahoma) for her father’s killer was her one adventure in life. Rooster Cogburn, the U.S. Marshall she hires to help is her opposite—a morally suspect man who has been on both sides of the law, who drinks and kills, who abandons women, etc. He was one of Cantrell’s Raiders in the Civil War. But one feels that after this adventure, Mattie never marries because no man can match Cogburn.

The movie is fairly light-hearted, and the book is the same until the end. Mattie is bitten by a rattlesnake and Cogburn brings her back to Fort Smith in a heroic attempt to save her life. He is successful, but she loses her arm to infection. After she leaves Fort Smith with her family, she never sees Cogburn again until 1903, when she retrieves his body in Tennessee, brings him back to Arkansas, and buries him with a stone that reads, “Reuben Cogburn, 1835-1903, A resolute officer of Parker’s Court.”

Knowing that this is Mattie’s one adventure in life, her sole romantic moment, gives the book a sadness not present in the movie. I liked True Grit a lot and can certainly understand why Portis has his cult following. I’d be interested in tracking down his other books.

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