True Grit by Charles Portis: Book Review

True Grit is a change of genre for me and I would not have chosen to read it myself – it’s my face-to-face book group book for this month. We met last night – the overall opinion was that it was OK, but rather disappointing, not living up to the quotes on the back of the book, or to the Introduction by Donna Tartt, who explained how much she and her family loved the book.

I used to like watching Westerns, but I don’t think I’ve read any since I was a child. My library had quite a lot of what I thought of as ‘cowboy’ books and after I’d read all the fairy tale books I moved on to those. I’ve watched the John Wayne film True Grit many years ago and remembered very little about it, other than an old and overweight Wayne wearing an eye patch helping a girl to trace her father’s murderer. And that is really the plot in a nutshell.

Mattie Ross, the girl in question, is a determined 14 year-old who in the 1870s leaves her mother and younger brother at home whilst she sets out after Tom Chaney, who had worked for her father and had killed him. Chaney had joined a band of outlaws – the Lucky Ned Pepper gang and gone into hiding in the Indian territory , which was under the jurisdiction of the US marshals. The sheriff tells her that one of the marshals, Rooster Cogburn is the ‘meanest’, a ‘pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork.’ She hires him to get Tom Chaney.

In the book Cogburn is not quite like the John Wayne portrayal. He’s younger, in his late forties, but he is fat, one-eyed with walrus moustaches, unwashed and drunk most of the time. Most of our group had difficulty accepting that a 14 year old girl would behave as Mattie does or that Cogburn and LaBoeuf (a Texas Ranger who is also looking for Chaney) would take her along with them.

I liked the format of the story told from Mattie’s point of view as an adult remembering what had happened and the straight forward style. She is a very down-to-earth character who sees things as either right or wrong and backs up her opinions with Bible texts. The other characters are a bit like cardboard cutouts though and not too convincing. It’s a quick easy read but not one to stay in my mind for long – I finished it over a week ago and my memory of the detail is fading already. However, it has made me interested in watching John Wayne’s True Grit (it was on TV last week and we recorded it) and in seeing the new film, starring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon,  Josh Brolin and Hailee Steinfield as Mattie.

6 thoughts on “True Grit by Charles Portis: Book Review”

  1. Margaret – Thanks for this review. I have to admit; westerns are just not my cuppa. I like the premise of True Grit well enough but I confess, I never read it. I suppose I ought to open my mind a bit and try a western or two, but just haven’t…

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  2. It is interesting, isn’t it? I read this book many, many years ago and did not like it all that much either. I liked Shane when I was very young. Although when I was under 12, Westerns were very popular at the cinema and I enjoyed them (John Wayne, Dean Martin et al), they do seem to have faded out somewhat, and I don’t remember really enjoying or even reading books in the genre apart from these two. Funnily enough, I’m now enjoying reading C J Box’s Joe Pickett series which is a sort of modern western, though much more conservation/family oriented than the classics of the genre. A few shootouts, though (which don’t work well, in my view- but the rest of the books’ themes are absorbing).

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  3. It’s a shame that True Grit fell short, although Mattie does sound like a good character. I’ve been in the mood for a western ever since I rewatched The Big Country, one of my favorite westerns ever.

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  4. Once I outgrew ‘Champion the Wonder Horse’ I never really went back to the Western. I had thought about trying this as there’s been so much publicity about the film, but what you have to say doesn’t really inspire, especially not when there’s so much else out there I really do want to read.

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    1. ‘˜Champion the Wonder Horse’ – that’s going back a bit – I loved it, along with ‘The Lone Ranger’. Then there was ‘Wagon Train’ and ‘Wells Fargo’ – I really enjoyed those programmes!

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  5. I’ve never understood the iconic status of John Wayne. To me, he wasn’t an actor, just John Wayne in different settings. However, my husband loved him. At any rate, although “they” say the new version with Jeff Bridges is better, I’m not tempted to go see it nor to read the book. I guess the premise is just too much of a stretch for me.

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