If you're at all familiar with this blog, you may not need telling that I'm not usually a fan of the Western genre of literature. And it's the same with films. When I was young I used to avoid Westerns like the plague, thinking they were a) boring and b) boys' movies. I'm sure in some cases I'd still agree with my earlier self, but being older and wiser, I've pushed the goalposts outwards quite considerably, certainly as far as films are concerned. So a few years ago, when the film of True Grit came out, I was more than willing to give it a try. Of course the fact that it was directed by the brilliant Coen brothers, and that it starred Jeff Bridges, who I simply cannot resist, no matter what he's in, made a big difference. And what a great film it was.
At the time, I don't think I was even aware that the film had been based on a novel. but so indeed it was. True Grit by Charles Portis was published in 1968, and almost immediately made into a movie starring John Wayne, who I definitely can resist, so I haven't seen that one. All this might have passed me by, anyway, except that the friend with whom I recently watched the 2010 movie (my second viewing) not only recommended the book but actually bought me a copy. And when I saw that it had an afterword by no less than Donna Tartt, I couldn't wait to get into it.
True Grit is remarkable for its story, which tells of Mattie Ross, a fourteen year old girl (wonderfully played in the movie by Hailee Steinfeld) who sets out to avenge her father's murder. She recruits a tough US Marshall, Rooster Cogburn, to help her with her quest, and together the two venture into the wild Indian country, where they are joined by LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger. The two men initally quarrel, but when they come to an agreement, they decide to leave Mattie behind. But Mattie is having none of it. She picked Cogburn for his grit, but her own is at least equal to his.
But it's also remarkable for the way the story is told. It's narrated by Mattie herself, twenty-five years later, and the narrative voice (which is wonderfully captured in the recent film) is really entertaining and exceptional. Mattie the narrator is a churchgoing spinster, whose tone of voice and attitudes come through extraordinarily well both in her story-telling and in the dialogues she transcribes. Mattie the child is prim and proper, hardheaded, industrious, and has a great head for business. She gives Cogburn a very hard time about his drinking: "I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains". She's totally without a sense of humour, though we can often see the funny side of stories she tells about herself and others, and above all she is completely, single-mindedly dedicated to the task she has set herself. And fortunately the Coens decided to make the film true to this exceptional voice, which gives it a whole layer of interest and enjoyment.
And of course it's great to have Donna Tartt's views on the novel -- which she, and indeed her entire family, have loved since it first appeared -- as an afterword. I'll leave you with a passage she quotes as being the most gratifying moment in the whole book, when Rooster loses his ambivalence about Mattie when he sees her being attacked with a switch by Le Boeuf.
I began to cry, I could not help it, but more from anger and embarrassment than pain. I said to Rooster, "Are you going to let him do this?"
He dropped his cigarette to the ground and said, "No, I don't believe I will. Put your switch away, LaBoeuf. She has got the best of us".
"She has not got the best of me", replied the Ranger.
Rooster said, "That will do, I said".
LaBoeuf paid him no heed.
Rooster raised his voice and said "Put that switch down, LaBoeuf! Do you hear me talking to you?"
LaBoeuf stopped and looked at him. Then he said, "I am going ahead with what I started".
Rooster pulled his cedar-handled revolver and cocked it with his thumb and threw down on LaBoeuf. He said, "It will be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brush-popper".