True Grit, by Charles Portis

Watching True Grit with my parents just before being quarantined inspired my husband, thirteen-year-old daughter, and me to borrow the book from my sister (this was really a family affair) and read it together. I have to confess that the three of us gave it rather lukewarm reviews. However, as my sister referred to it as one of her favorite books (a far more important recommendation than its literary accolades), I thought I should investigate further before posting a two-and-a-half star review.

As it turns out, listening to the Close Reads podcast discussion of True Grit boosted my regard not only for Charles Portis but a for whole genre of American writing that is little on my radar. The commentators, Tim McIntosh, Angelina Stanford, and David Kern, alerted me to a rich subtext that I was largely unconscious of. Well, to be perfectly accurate, I was fairly certain the content of Rooster’s stories (among other things) carried significance but had difficulty identifying it.

I will plead that much of the book was read to me while I worked in the kitchen, as opposed to my reading it myself with undivided attention. However, even had I not been preoccupied, I might have failed to appreciate the significance of the post-Civil War setting, as well as the Western (as in literature about the American West) tropes of law, justice, vengeance, and the lone cowboy.

Even without fully comprehending True Grit’s literary merits, it’s impossible not to marvel at the spunky first-person narrator, Mattie Ross. The confidence and pluck, not to mention business acumen, she displayed at fourteen almost defies belief. But I could believe they made them tougher back then.

Portis’s prose is unadorned, and I still retain a preference for literature that privileges richness of language. But I also admire the spare, lean style that wastes no words and can invoke, for instance, a repeated historical phenomenon (i.e. the displacement of men who’ve served in a brutal war) with a few well-crafted lines. It almost goes without saying that the form is singularly appropriate for the subject matter.

Incidentally, the John Wayne movie stayed fairly close to the original until the ending, which it truncated and polished up. I was surprised, upon reading the book, to observe that the movie makers had toned down the snake pit scene. Maybe it was a tad too gritty for 1969 movie-goers. For the record, the Close Reads commentators liked the 2010 movie, but we have chosen to forego it for now, as Common Sense Media recommends it for age 15 and up. It sounds intense, which is probably truer to the book.

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