My couples’ book club just discussed “True Grit” by Charles Portis, one of the finest, funniest books I’ve ever read. I was out of town for the conversation – DARN – but some of my book club friends were happy to share a few thoughts. After a brief summary and a few Bacon ruminations, I’ll turn it over to Goldilocks and the Hunter, Pulaski and the Yogi (Yogess?), Sweet Caroline and Her Can’t Hardly Play Boy, and the Talking Head…
“True Grit” imagines the story of one Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl in post-Civil War Arkansas who sets out to avenge the death of her father at the hand of scoundrel and thief Tom Chaney. She hires Rooster Cogburn, a former Confederate soldier, to track him, and they are joined by LeBoeuf, a Texas ranger who has his own financial incentive to find the wanted man.
Donna Tartt compares Mattie to both Huckleberry Finn and Dorothy (of Oz) and says she might – better yet – be considered the sister of the great whale-hunter, Ahab. I’m with Donna: she’s obsessed.
She is willing to pay a steep price for what she requires – a steep price, up front – and also a price as yet unknown. She is willing to leave the boundaries of civilization, come what may, to avenge her father’s death.
In our own challenging times, this book has raised profound moral questions – and questions of grit and character – for me.
I believe this might be one of the great works of American literature, one that should be taught in high school alongside anointed classics like “The Red Badge of Courage”, “The Lord of The Flies”, and “Beloved”.
“True Grit” is situated in a remarkably important time and place in our country – the post-Civil War frontier; it poses essential moral questions; its plot is bloody and suspenseful; and the voice of the narrator is both unique – and original – in American letters. Yet it is not entirely unfamiliar. As long as America has been the land of the free and the home of the brave, there have been girls – and boys – with grit. There have been complicated heroes like Rooster Cogburn. And Texans like LeBoeuf. Texas is practically its own country, with all its bluster and braggadocio, and yet it is also proudly American, and proudly claimed by America.
And now, with gratitude, I turn to my book club friends…
Had you read this book before our book club meeting? Will you read it again or give it to a friend? Do you think it is a great work of American literature?
Goldilocks: I had never read the book, nor had I watched either of the movie adaptations. I’m usually not a big fan of Westerns – too dusty, too violent. However, I loved this book! It was funny, suspenseful and action-filled. I found it to be perfect Covid escapism. I’m not sure it is one of the great works of American literature, but I would absolutely recommend it to a friend.
The Hunter: I had not read it before our book club, but I really enjoyed it, and would definitely recommend it. I think it will continue to have significant appeal to all ages because of the linear adventure story coupled with the unique vernacular of nineteenth century Arkansas. The language was pointed and entertaining.
Pulaski: I was certain I had read this years ago, until I read it. Then I realized I had commingled TV/movie memories of John Wayne and Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn over the decades – but never had I opened these pages. (I learned long ago with this group to avoid feigned knowledge of the text. There is harassment for not doing the reading. Question. Can you answer these questions just by watching the movie? I shall not name names.)
I read so little that it seems a waste to repeat the reading, but I would certainly recommend it heartily. It is an easy read, and very funny. And sort of timeless. Our group often reads fiction recently published; it was a pleasure for me to discover this classic from decades ago.
And the Yogi (Yog-ess?): I would never have picked this up had it not been assigned. Westerns don’t generally appeal, but this was so much more than that! Already loaned it to my older son, so won’t likely see it again or get to reread.
Sweet Caroline: I had read it many years before and thoroughly enjoyed it. Mattie Ross is such a young woman of character and action. I did recommend it!
And Her Can’t Hardly Play Boy: This was my third trip from just outside Dardanelle in Yell County, to Ft. Smith, to Indian Country – once for me, once read aloud to our son, now for book club. I plan to read it again in a year or two; it’s funny and oddly moving and I’ve found something new each time. A great work of American literature? Maybe, but definitely a great read, which is just as important and every bit as difficult.
The Talking Head: I believe this was my second read, but with two great movie adaptations perhaps I am mistaken. I enjoyed reading it but confess it was hard not to associate movie characters with those in the book. With everyone ducking the great work of American literature question, I’ll go ahead and answer: it has my vote.
Who was your favorite character? If Mattie – 14 year old Mattie, or the older Mattie (narrator) retelling the tale?
Goldilocks: My favorite aspect of the book is the voice of young Mattie Ross. She is one tough cookie, with more “grit” in her little finger than many of us could ever hope to have. Throughout her singular mission to avenge her father’s death, Mattie makes me realize how soft we have all become. Our lives have become so comfortable, our children so overprotected, and our goals so vague. I chuckled when I recalled reading Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance in a parenting class. Mattie Ross left home at age fourteen with but nothing but a pony and her dead father’s pistol – no self-help book needed! The absurdity of a little girl enduring this wild Western odyssey, while maintaining laser-sharp wit and focus, made me laugh out loud.
The Hunter: Fourteen year old Mattie was by far my favorite character. She is sharp-tongued, smart, witty and bold. She had qualities that one would find appealing in any character. I felt sorry for the narrator Mattie, it seemed that life after Rooster was not as meaningful.
The Yogess: Young Mattie with her clarity of purpose and sarcastic wit! I found senior Mattie a bit wistful, though maybe I imagined her feeling that way. I often wondered how well her memory served her or if she embellished a bit.
Can’t Hardly Play Boy: Tough call. I find I’m drawn to Col. Stonehill, the stock trader (or “Col. Stockhill the stone trader,” as the boarding house owner has it). He’s a melancholy but essentially decent figure who is reluctantly bested by Mattie at every turn. And it’s hard not to like a character referred to as “lawyer J. Noble Daggett of Dardanelle.”
I was underlining constantly – and smiling – while reading. Did you have a favorite line?
The Hunter: Two lines stuck with me and they were both smack downs on the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf. I liked his character as well, but I think he was there for comic relief. The first was Mattie”s response to his confusion over whether to steal a kiss or hit her with his belt:
“One would be as unpleasant as the other.”
The second was Rooster’s response to his claim that he drank water form a hoofprint:
“If I ever meet one of you Texas waddies that says he never drank from a horse track I think I will shake his hand and give him a Daniel Webster cigar.”
Can’t Hardly Play Boy: The direct and cross-examination of Rooster in Judge Parker’s courtroom during the murder trial of Odus Wharton is classic.
The Yogess: I loved the whole part about the rat “writ” when Rooster was shooting rodents indoors.
Did either movie version do the book justice?
Can’t Hardly: Both. Interestingly, both were successful (Academy Award nominations) and both hold up pretty well – a sure sign of a well-crafted story. Both are worth watching but neither completely captures the oddball energy and cross-eyed charm of the novel.
The Hunter: I have watched both the 1969 and the 2010 version many times, and watched both the night before book club. (I read the book as well.) I think that each movie was very true to the book. I felt John Wayne was a better Rooster Cogburn and the Mattie in the Coen Brothers version was more like the book Mattie. Much of the dialogue was verbatim from the book in each.
Sweet Caroline: I definitely enjoyed the young Mattie as told through the narration of the older Mattie. It is so refreshing these days to read of a young woman with such grit and determination. Makes you feel good about the younger generation and what they can accomplish.
What if Mattie had allowed Rooster and LeBoeuf to leave her behind, early or late in the tale? Does the entire tale hinge on her stubbornness?
Pulaski: For me, the tale hinges on the tortured relationship between Mattie and Rooster, who seem to enjoy a simultaneous disdain and admiration for one another. In the end, I don’t think we get this amazing story of how steadfast they are to each other without their journey together.
The Yogess: Mattie made all the wheels turn. Being stubborn always sounds rather negative, so I like to think of her having gumption. She didn’t toss and turn alongside Grandma Turner wondering if she was doing the right thing, was her Mama okay, would she get hurt, would she be cold and hungry, etc. etc. That either makes her very brave or very foolhardy. In the end, like most of us, she was some of each.
Goldilocks: It was fun to see how much Rooster and LeBoeuf didn’t want her along in the beginning. They went to great lengths to try to ditch her! However, later in the tale, they went to great lengths to save her from peril. I loved that these three seemed to admire each other without an ounce of sentimentality.
The Hunter: The story hinges on Mattie’s obsession with the revenge of her father’s murder which is the cause of her stubbornness. Her singular focus on revenge is what enables her to out horsetrade a horse trader, convince Rooster to go after a murderer with a girl in tow, and shoot the murderer herself.
Sweet Caroline: No way was Mattie going to be left behind!
Can’t Hardly: Like the Wizard of Oz, this is a story about what the characters think they are searching for and what they find instead, what they learn from each other. No Dorothy, no Wizard of Oz – just flying monkeys and a green lady in a funny hat. No Mattie, no True Grit.
Why do you think Charles Portis wrote Mattie as a girl, not a boy? What if Mattie had been – Matt? Would the story have felt substantially different?
Pulaski: It’s not the same tale if Mattie is Matt, or Pat, or whoever. I think a 14-year-old boy in the late 19th century going out to avenge his father would have been unusual but not jaw dropping. Mattie defies the usual stereotype of how a 14-year-old girl is expected to behave, and that’s part of what makes it interesting. Best I can tell, she’s still defying stereotypes, even in 2020.
(Ignore my comment about Pat, I think somehow that could get me in trouble)
Goldilocks: Mattie is a female warrior!
The Hunter: Mattie as a young lady makes the story that much more of a triumph. The greater the odds against an unlikely hero – the sweeter the victory. A west coast suburban dog conquering the Alaskan wilderness or a privileged New England boy surviving being swept off the deck of a boat at sea are also unlikely survivors that make their stories more entertaining and enduring.
Sweet Caroline: I think having the main character be a girl is what makes the story so compelling. As a female I think Charles Portis did an incredible job of writing in the voice of a young woman.
Can’t Hardly: If Mattie were a 14-year old boy, this would risk becoming just another coming of age story, a Zane Gray western. By making the main character a pious 14-year old orphan at the ragged edge of civilization, he confounds the expectations of every other character she meets, as well as the reader’s. When he sees her again in Indian Country, Tom Chaney says, “Why, you’re Mattie, the little bookkeeper” – just before she shoots him. He’s not the only one who underestimates her.
Talking Head: To borrow an earlier answer, No Mattie, No True Grit.
What’s your major takeaway from this book? And – do our times require True Grit?
Pulaski: The Hunter asked me what a Grit is? (That’s such a Northeastern trope. It still offends me, and he’s from nowhere near Boston.) Maybe it’s duty, or loyalty, or toughness, or reliability, or faithfulness, or character or fortitude or stoicism. Maybe it’s quietly making the best out of the hand you’re dealt, or inconveniencing yourself for another. I don’t know exactly, but we’ve gone soft, and grit seems to be especially needed now.
The Yogess: True grit gets you through the days. Faith and hope through the dark hours.
Goldilocks: Yes, I think these times call for grit, though not in the physical sense that Mattie endures. I think this time of uncertainty, division and isolation calls for some mental grit. This is a tough time, but people throughout the ages have endured far, far worse! It’s important to self-regulate our thoughts, our actions and our attitudes toward getting through this with as much optimism as possible. I think I’ll reread the Angela Duckworth book, or at least listen to her Ted Talk.
The Hunter: It was a captivating and well-written adventure story, and did not drag on excessively long. I am sure that I will read it again. Even though they were very likeable, I do not think that the main characters have the qualities that are needed during our times. Rooster and Mattie were far too reckless with their own lives and the lives of others. Rooster was an aging alcoholic with a troubled past known for shooting rather than reasoning, and Mattie was so obsessed with finding her father’s killer that she would risk devastating her remaining family to satisfy her need for revenge. What our times need is some moderation.
Sweet Caroline: I will agree that we definitely need some moderation in this crazy time, however served up with Mattie’s fierce determination.
Can’t Hardly: All times require true grit. Be prepared to share a bed with Grandma Turner and to take the reins in your teeth when necessary.
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