True Grit by Charles Portis

Cover of the 2005 edition with introduction by Donna Tartt
Cover of the 2005 edition with introduction by Donna Tartt

When the latest version of True Grit was released in cinemas in 2010 (the first film was released in 1969 and starred John Wayne), I was eager to see it. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and the Coen brothers were a big yes, and my dad recommended the story. I’m not usually a fan of Westerns, but these factors convinced me and I went to see it – and yes, it was good. It actually lived up to the hype. Bridges was brilliant as always, Damon was just right for the part and young Hailee Steinfeld was perfect as the older-than-her-years Mattie. Despite it being a Western I was intrigued by Mattie and admired her determination and courage. The moment when she rides her horse through the river in order not to be left behind by Rooster and Le Boeuf was particularly stirring.

Soon after the film was released I bought myself a copy of the original novel, written by Charles Portis in 1968. The fact that the new edition boasted an introduction by Donna Tartt, one of my favourite authors, only encouraged me. But the book sat on my shelf for a long time, maybe a year. I don’t know why. A lot of my decision process when choosing a book to read is based on feeling and for some reason True Grit did not compel me for some time. Anyway, a couple of months ago I picked it up and read Tartt’s introduction, in which she heralds True Grit as one of her favourite books, one she is able to return to again and again and revel in. Perhaps this, coupled with the excellence of the film, was one of the problems.

Mattie’s narrative voice is one aspect of the story that is always praised, both in the book and the film. It is certainly strong and confident. She is only fourteen, yet has unending pragmatism and determination. She is obviously traumatised and angered by her father’s death, but she does not attend his funeral because she has to sort out his papers; at least, this is the reason she gives. It is not at all strange to her that she should want to set out to catch her father’s killer, despite her age and gender (this is 19th century Old West after all), and is offended when her capabilities are doubted. I particularly like that she wears her father’s hat and coat for the journey to find his killer, and wields his gun. Yet she is still a child. Sometimes her bravery betrays her naivety and lack of experience; but then, perhaps we should all be a little braver and care a little less about what we ‘should’ do. Most people admire Mattie and I do too – but sometimes her naivety and youth create a slightly annoying rather than endearing narrator. Sometimes her narrative just seems like bad writing, and the story just plods along, despite its several dramatic and exciting episodes. Mattie does not make anything seem exciting. I think the point is that she contains her feelings so well that she does not fully express them even to her reader, and we must read the subtext. This works in Austen, but not here. Instead of a calm mask over fraught feelings, Mattie just seems calm, oddly so. She is very matter of fact, and the reason for this is no doubt because she is relating the story to us from her old age. Nevertheless, she makes everything sound ordinary and while dramatic not really that exciting. To be honest, sometimes I got bored.

Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie in the 2012 film
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie in the 2012 film

Mattie’s narrative is so blank that most of the time I had images from the film in my head – I just could not picture it any other way. I have read novels after seeing the film adaptation before, but this was different. There was so little imagery in Portis’ work that the film took over in my mind. Now, I am not one who needs everything spelled out, heck, part of the reason I love novels is that everything isn’t, but this is really, really blank. There is so little here. In a way it’s good because Portis/Mattie is simply giving you the bare bones of the story and you are then left to make your own judgements and character profiles, but I felt that Mattie needed to do more for her reader. When her horse Blackie dies, her heart is ‘broken’ and ‘There never lived a nobler pony’, but that’s about all the feeling you get. The poor girl is forced to grow up before her time and as a result it seems that she loses the ability to express much emotion beyond a sentence here and there on the state of her heart. The result for the reader is that while we admire her courage and determination, we cannot connect with her on an emotional or, really, a psychological level. We commend her bravery, and are moved by her plight – but that’s it. Essentially, Mattie is two-dimensional. For a girl being written by a man in a Western in 1968, she is pretty damn cool. For a girl in 2012, she is two-dimensional. If anything she acts, today, as a symbol of female courage, determination and downright stubbornness in the face of men who think she is a Silly Little Girl, something I think all women have been made to feel at one point or another.

Mattie enlists Rooster Cogburn to help her track down her father’s killer because she hears he has ‘true grit’ – and of course the point is that in the end she is the one with ‘true grit’. It is a great story, and Mattie is a great creation, but not necessarily a great character – she is not well-rounded enough for that. Her adventure is all there is to her, it seems. With Mattie and with True Grit as a whole, I was left wanting more; needing more, as a reader.

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Originally published in 1968 by Simon & Schuster in the US, and reprinted by Bloomsbury in 2005.

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