I am always a little reluctant to read a book after I’ve seen a film adaptation of the same. It’s difficult to imagine the characters on the page, when they’ve already been in front of you, bigger than life on the screen. Fortunately it’s been a few years since I saw the Coen brother’s version of True Grit, although Rooster did look like Jeff Bridges in my mind’s eye. I do recall the film had great dialogue, which couldn’t have been too difficult to write because that’s the fun of the book, it’s all right there.
The story is told by Mattie Ross, now an old woman. She opens the story: “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.” Now there’s a storyteller’s opening. Her father had gone into Fort Smith, Arkansas to buy some ponies, taking with him a man named Tom Chaney. Chaney got drunk, killed her father and stole his gold and his horse. Mattie, who has numerous responsibilities on the family’s farm, goes into town to claim the body and then decides to claim revenge as well.
At fourteen she’s damn sharp as she bargains with the horse trader to get him to rescind the sale of the ponies for which her family no longer has any use. I laughed when she threatened legal action through lawyer Daggett. Were Americans litigious back then, or is Portis throwing in a little 20th century humor? She gets the best of the trade and then seeks a US Marshall to help her find Chaney. She is told Rooster Cogburn has grit, and so she seeks him out. She watches him on the witness stand (the cross examination is quite humorous) and then goes to hire him. He is skeptical, but she will not be denied. In the meantime another man shows up, LeBoeuf, who is hunting Chaney for another crime he committed in Texas. He’s a bit of a dandy, the opposite of Rooster, and he and Mattie loath each other immediately.
Mattie succeeds in getting Rooster to go on the manhunt, and LeBoeuf persuades Rooster to include him. The prospect of a lucrative reward is too much for Rooster to refuse. The men try to ditch Mattie, but she will have none of it, so reluctantly they form a team. During their travels Rooster reveals a dark history in which he is just as much a criminal as a law man. Apparently they didn’t do background checks on US Marshall candidates. Mattie eventually gets her man, but it is the interactions between her and all the other characters that make the book a great read. She is blunt, self righteous, a bigot at times and quite believable. This is a fun, quick read.