True Grit, a 1968 novel by Arkansas native Charles McColl Portis, is a highly regarded piece of modern American fiction. It has twice been made into major motion pictures and once filmed for TV.
True Grit tells the story of 14-year-old Mattie Ross, circa 1875 Arkansas, who is set on avenging her father’s death at the hands of Tom Chaney, a hired hand. Mattie is a self assured, strong-willed young woman of Christian morals. She has a head for business and is unafraid to make judgments and see her decisions through to completion. When word of her father’s murder while on a business trip reaches home, there is no question that Mattie will take charge. She is the eldest child and her mother is too overcome to handle matters. Mattie travels to Fort Smith to see to her father’s body and his business deals (missing his funeral) and then sets down to getting justice. Frustrated by the slow response of law enforcement to her father’s murder, Mattie decides to hire someone to help her track down and kill Tom Chaney, who has fled into Indian Territory.
Mattie is a singular character. Though a young girl, she bosses about as if she were a man twice her age. And she gets her way most of the time. She gets the business deal she wants on the horses her father had purchased, and she hires US Marshal Rooster Cogburn to pursue Chaney with her in tow. She is determined to hire Cogburn because, according to the sheriff, he of all the marshals is the meanest. “He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking.” Mattie observes Cogburn giving testimony in court, where the defense attorney for outlaw Odus Wharton implies that Cogburn is an outlaw himself for his excessive force and shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to law enforcement. For Mattie, this means, Cogburn has “true grit”.
Mattie’s plan is complicated by the arrival in Fort Smith of Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who is also after Chaney for murder. LaBoeuf is a bit of a dandy, and Mattie’s initial impression is that he is arrogant and rude. He does himself no favors by trying to convince Mattie to return home and let the professionals do their work. He wants to work with a Federal Marshal like Cogburn, but Mattie tries to brush him off and tells him to find his own Marshal. Their first conversation is combative but also an opportunity for Portis to show his flair for humor. After Mattie insults LaBoeuf’s investigating skills by pointing out that in four months of searching, he hasn’t found Chaney yet, LaBoeuf says, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.” “One would be as unpleasant as the other,” Mattie replies.
Eventually, Mattie, Cogburn and LaBoeuf set out together into Indian Territory, although the two men do try to leave Mattie behind and LaBoeuf especially loathes her presence on the journey. Both Cogburn and LaBoeuf are concerned with money, and the three cannot agree on the question of whether Chaney, once apprehended, will be remanded to justice in Texas or Arkansas. Mattie has very definite ideas of what should happen to Chaney — death, and if there is to be a trial, it should be in Arkansas.
While searching for Chaney, the reader learns a bit about the backgrounds of Cogburn and LaBoeuf. Cogburn is 40-ish and fought alongside Jesse and Frank James under Capt. Quantrill in the Civil War. Quantrill was known for the war crimes he committed against civilian populations, and it is hinted that Cogburn might have been involved in one of the worst at Lawrence, Kansas. His work history after the war involved a variety of trades and illicit activities. He became a Federal Marshal after an employer brought him up on charges in Reno. The Marshal there recognized Cogburn from their youth and got him a job. LaBoeuf, on the other hand, was too young to get involved in the war until the very end, missing out on any important action, much to his disappointment. LaBoeuf has a glorified view of the war and fighting, which is perhaps easier to have when you haven’t seen the fighting. He remarks that he nearly cried when he heard the war was over. He is disgusted by Cogburn’s past (riding with Quantrill) and by his current behavior — siding with Mattie against him and engaging in excessive drinking.
As far as I’m concerned, Mattie is the most interesting character and the one who possesses “true grit.” It is hard to like her sometimes. She’s judgmental and can be obnoxious in her dealings with others, but she knows her purpose and is incredibly brave. I also find it interesting and funny that she frequently threatens to call in her lawyer to deal with those she feels are not being fair with her (i.e, giving in to her demands). Her confidence in the value of a good lawyer is especially amusing in her exchange with the outlaw known as Lucky Ned Pepper. When he discovers that LaBoeuf shot his horse, Lucky Ned says, “A man from Texas has no authority to fire at me.” Mattie responds, “I know nothing about that. I have a good lawyer at home.” Ned then asks about the fate of some of his other men and Mattie says, “They are both dead. It was a terrible thing to see. I was in the very middle of it. Do you need a good lawyer?” Later she adds, “My lawyer has political influence.”
True Grit has some interesting things to say about frontier justice (or injustice) and what I would call “American character.” Those in charge of law enforcement and justice are often unjust and guilty of lawbreaking themselves. Mattie, who puts so much stock in her lawyer’s abilities to protect her family’s property, leaves him out of her search for criminal justice and is only too eager to become a vigilante when it comes to avenging her father’s death. I think that that kind of thinking is widespread today. We are often called a litigious society and we still see today that people with guns are eager to take the law into their own hands (think Trayvon Martin). The resolution to this story and Mattie’s fate made me think of “an eye for an eye” in a very literal way. Mattie makes a physical sacrifice and seems to have no regrets about any of her actions.
The epilogue to this edition was written by Donna Tartt, a lifelong fan of the book along with several generations of her family. Tartt writes that True Grit was taught in one of her high school lit classes, and as I read the book, it occurred to me that this actually could be “youth lit.” True Grit really is an American Classic and a great read.