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by William H. Benson

January 6, 2011

     I am not a fan of the Western. One book by Zane Gray, Riders of the Purple Sage, and one by Louis L’Amour, Sitka, are the only two Westerns I have ever finished. I have started others but invariably found something missing: either the plots were juvenile—lacking an ounce of motivation, or the characters were stereotypical—cut from cardboard, or the dialogue was contrived—cowboys talking like cowboys are presumed to talk. 

     Then, over the holidays, I went to the movies and saw True Grit, and came away so impressed that I purchased a copy of the book by the same name by Charles Portis and read it to the end.

     The plot is straightforward: Mattie Ross a fourteen-year-old girl from Dardenelle, Arkansas, Yell County, has arrived in Fort Smith, Arkansas to claim the body of her deceased father, Frank Ross. The Ross’s hired man, Tom Chaney, had gone with Frank to Fort Smith to help him bring back some ponies, but Chaney, in a drunken stupor one night, had shot and killed Ross, stole his horse named Judy, as well as $150 in cash and two gold pieces, and lit out for the Indian Territory, Oklahoma.

     Mattie stares down at her departed father and said to herself, “What a waste! Tom Chaney would pay for this! I would not rest easy until that Louisiana cur was roasting and screaming in hell!” After reading that, I thought, “there is enough motivation to keep this story going to the last page.”

     At a negotiated price of $100, she hires a one-eyed Marshall, named Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn—described as “a greasy vagabond,” who “loves to pull a cork,”—to find Chaney and bring him back to Fort Smith to hang for the murder of her father. Mattie insists that she go with Rooster.

    The third character in this unlikely posse is LaBoeuf, pronounced “LaBeef,” a solitary Texas Ranger, a dandy filled with a mountain of self-importance, who has been chasing Chaney across several states for a crime committed back in Texas. LaBoeuf suggests to Mattie that he “throw in with Rooster,” which he does, but then, on the morning of their scheduled departure, the two men try to slip away without her. Undeterred, she crosses a creek on her pony, Little Blackie, and catches up with them. The three ride into the Indian Territory in search of Tom Chaney.

     One critic named Donna Tartt said that the two men adjust to Mattie’s presence. “Finally, when they cannot get Mattie to turn back, they accept her: first, in anger, as a worrisome tag-along; then, grudgingly, as a mascot and equal of sorts; and at last—as she stands among them and proves herself—a relentless force in her own right.”

     Charles Portis, the author, avoided the stereotypical, and instead, carefully drew each of these three characters and then balanced them. At one point Rooster says, “I am getting old. I am undone by a harpy in trousers and a nincompoop.” Then, the three of them are set in opposition to a gang of cutthroats, for they discover that Tom Chaney has fallen in with a band of robbers headed by Lucky Ned Pepper. The story gallops along with such vivid and colorful characters.

     But what really impresses the reader is the precision of the language, for this story is a monologue, spoken by Mattie Ross, but written as a recollection later in her life, of that winter she rode in hot pursuit of Tom Chaney held up in the Winding Stair Mountains of southeastern Oklahoma.

     Her first sentence leaps out at the reader. “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.”

     Mattie is sharp-tongued, filled with opinions, but deadpan in her delivery, prim, resourceful, naïve, hard-headed, blasé about hangings and gunfights, without a shred of doubt or hesitation, and her religion is of the Old Testament variety. On occasion, she will quote scriptures to justify her opinion, but normally she just gives it without any support.

     Seeing Rooster’s thirst for alcohol, she says, “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.” Seeing his slovenliness, she says, “Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone.”

     Mattie Ross is made of a sterner fabric than was Huckleberry Finn, also fourteen-years-old, and that which drives Mattie—justice, if not revenge—is of a heavier quality than that which drove Dorothy, who only wants to see the Wizard of Oz so that he can return her to Kansas. Instead, Mattie wants to go to Oklahoma, and she would ignore a wizard, for he lacked “sand in his craw” and had little “true grit.”

     Portis published his book in 1968, and the movie came out the following year, and starred John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, Kim Darby as Mattie Ross, and Glen Campbell, the Country and Western singer originally from Arkansas, as La Bouef. John Wayne won his first and only best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Rooster. In the 2010 version, Jeff Bridges plays Rooster, Hallie Steinfeld is Mattie, and Matt Damon is LaBouef.


     Which is better, the book or the movie? Take your pick, for both feature Mattie Ross, an original in American fiction.