After finally watching the 2010 Cohen Brothers’ version of this book, and having seen the John Wayne version in the 60s, I decided it was time to read the story. The cover above, incidentally, is from the first edition.
I don’t remember enough of the Duke’s version to give an honest verdict on which movie was the most loyal to the book, but I know that the newer own is very close. Besides, the Cohens make great movies.
The book is narrated by Mattie Ross in 1928. We readers only know that because she speaks once of the ongoing Presidental election with the Democrat Al Smith, “he will win.”
Portis filled the pages with old expressions and outdated writing style. An example: “cow-boy”, in quotes. On page 38 of the library book I read, Mattie describes Judge Isaac Parker, the real Federal judge in Fort Smith Arkansas. He served for 21 years, heard 13,490 cases with 8.500 convictions. While believed to be tough, only 79 men were executed.
While Judge Parker was a real judge, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn is fictional. Well, mostly. There was a one-eyed marshal of the time called Cal Whitson, but Portis claimed Rooster was a composite of several US marshals and never named Whitson.
This is a small book, just over 200 pages, a quick and easy read. Be aware that the storytelling will pull you in. I read half the book in one sitting, something that never happens to me anymore.
Here is part of an interview with Portis from the National Park Service Fort Smith website.
What was your inspiration for the story?
“I was reading some frontier memoirs at the time…. I liked the form and tone – a first-person narrative, simple, direct and innocent. So, I thought I would try my hand at a fictional version. I settled on a revenge plot, common enough in such accounts.”
Using a woman as the main character in a Western was unusual at the time True Grit was written. Tell us more about the character of Mattie Ross.
“An old lady is telling the story. She relates these rather squalid events in what she takes to be a proper, formal way. And she shows herself , unconsciously, perhaps, to be just as hard in her own way as these hard customers she disapproves of, and has to deal with. For some reason I just liked the idea of having a starchy old lady as a narrator.”
Are any of the events in the novel based on actual incidents?
“Yes, I did take the snake pit episode from an actual event. Some other things too, from written accounts… “
Treat yourself to a swell read.