The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.
One of the many felicitous consequences of Joel and Ethan Coen's decision to remake the 1969 western True Grit is republication of the original Charles Portis novel. First published in 1968 amid the tumult of an angry era of change, True Grit was was a decidedly old-fashioned book. In the decades since, many writers and filmmakers have felt compelled to "reinvent" the Western, to make avowedly "revisionist" statements that correct the weaknesses and shortcomings of the genre, which in many cases were real enough. But True Grit is a compelling reminder of why it has long been so satisfying, and the pleasures it affords in its most classic iterations.
The story is simple enough. It opens in post-Reconstruction Arkansas, where 14-year old Mattie Ross has come to the city of Fort Smith to claim the body of her father, murdered by a hired hand named Tom Chaney. But Mattie is not content simply to resolve her father's affairs; she's determined to avenge the crime. So she hires a somewhat unscrupulous Federal Marshall named Rooster Cogburn to retrieve Chaney from Indian Territory because she believes Cogburn has the "grit" for he job. One complication takes the form of another marshal, a Texan named LaBeouf, who also wants Chaney. The two men agree to collaborate, only to encounter another complication: the implacable insistence by Mattie that she join them. And so it that a semi-comic odyssey begins, one in which we get our fair share of horses, guns, bad weather, snakes, and all the requisite elements that are the prerequisites for a successful Western.
Mattie Ross is one of the great creations of modern American literature. As Donna Tartt (herself the distinguished author of 1992 novel The Secret History -- why has that never been made into a movie?) points out in her incisive afterword in this edition of the novel, there's long been a tendency among cult fans of this novel to compare her to Huck Finn. But Mattie is a tougher and smarter kid than Huck was.
She's more solemn than Huck, but Portis is endlessly inventive in exploiting her solemnity for comic effect, even as he evokes the language and attitude of what in many ways is a lost world. Mattie narrates the story from the perspective of about a half-century later, occasionally making contemporary asides like this one:
Thank God for the Harrison narcotics law. Also the Volstead Act. I know Governor Smith is 'wet' but that is because of his race and religion and he is not personally accountable for that. I think his first loyalty to the country and not to 'the infallible Pope of Rome.' I am not afraid of Al Smith for a minute. He is a good Democrat and when he is elected I believe he will do he right thing if he is not bullied into an early grave as was done to Woodrow Wilson, the greatest Presbyterian gentleman of the age.
All the major characters in the novel are Southern, and Confederate in their sympathies. Cogburn was one of Quantrill's Raiders, the notorious outfit responsible for atrocities in the Lawrence Raid of 1863, though he himself seems to be a rogue with a heart of gold. Cogburn's past becomes a topic of heated discussion at one point, but Portis less interested in judging or defending these people than in capturing their attitudes as unselfconsciously as he can. As we see in their occasional interactions with African Americans or Indians, they are neither more or less racist than their contemporaries.
"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 it did not happen every day," Mattie says in the opening line of the book. The magic of this novel is the way its compellingly strange language and narrator come to seem palpably real. It is the great achievement of True Grit that it evokes a moment in U.S. history in all its ordinary, extraordinary wonder.