|Original 1968 Simon Schuster hardback cover|
The book begins with these memorable opening lines,
“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 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.”And so the reader meets Mattie Ross, a plucky girl, brave and strong beyond her fourteen years, who intends to hunt down and bring her father's murderer to justice. She engages the services of a an old, cone-eyed US Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, to help her accomplish this feat. Ross recounts her harrowing tale in retrospect, nearly fifty years after the events that so drastically altered her life, when she is a cranky old spinster.
Charles McGrath, writing for the New York Times, had a lot to say about True Grit's humor. At first glance the book doesn't seem to be that funny. Surely the topic isn't a funny one. McGrath refers to the humor of True Grit as "deadpan", written as if serious but containing a truly bizarre set of characters who all do and say oddly funny things.
"Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow."Perhaps the humor is what sets True Grit apart, but I think it is the language that makes it really special. Mattie Ross as narrator is so authentic and unique. Her voice makes the book something really different. McGrath calls her narrative voice "a feat of historical ventriloquism." Truly Portis captured the language and tone of what I think people used to talk like in the 1800, much more formal and stiff. It was this use of language that really sold me on the book and elevated it, in my mind, to one of my top 50 books, one that readers, especially American readers, shouldn't miss.
"Mattie is lovable in her way, and though grit is what she admires in Rooster, she is hardly lacking in that department herself. But she is also humorless, righteous and utterly without either self-doubt or self-consciousness. She has no idea how she or her words come across on the page, nor would she care if she did" (McGrath).As a Presbyterian myself, I couldn't help laughing at her references to her faith and her church (Presbyterian) especially when she quotes scripture or comes across as very pious, “ 'I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious ‘claptrap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8: 26-33.'”
My husband and I listened to the audiobook version of True Grit read by Donna Tartt. Tartt, a Southerner, is a true fan of True Grit and loves it for its uniquely American voice, too. She did a masterful job with the narration and I highly recommend this format to you.
Sometimes, not often, a book comes along which instantly becomes a classic, a new favorite, and a must-read. This is one of those books. Though it was written fifty years ago, it still deserves it place on our nightstands. Go to your library right now and request a copy. You will not be disappointed.
btw- Everything I read said that John Wayne's motion picture adaptation of "True Grit" isn't as good as the Coen Brothers 2010 remake starring Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfield as Mattie Ross. Of course, read the book before you see the film.