What I like about…True Grit by Charles Portis

Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!’

Those are the words spoken by Charles Bronson at the climax of Death Wish (which I looked at last time), but he wasn’t the first to say them. Nor was John Wayne in the 1969 film adaptation of True Grit. It was Rooster Cogburn himself who said them first, in the novel the film was based on. John Wayne was just playing him.*

Charles Portis’s True Grit has a fair bit in common with Brian Garfield’s Death Wish (which I looked at the time before last). Both are probably less famous than their film adaptations. They both follow a character who chooses to act in the aftermath of grave injustice. Both of those characters have certain limitations that prevent them becoming giant badass heroes. But there’s one big difference.

Whereas Brian Garfield’s Paul Benjamin is led down a dark path by his limitations, Mattie Ross in True Grit is really, really not.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we go any further, I should warn you. Those varmints riding up ahead are spoilers.

What’s it about?

Young Mattie Ross teams up with grizzled US Marshall Rooster Cogburn and cocky Texas Ranger LaBoeuf to track Tom Chaney, the man who shot her father.

What I like

The plot is such a simple one that it’s a cliche. True Grit is, at its heart an ‘I’m looking for the man that shot ma paw!’ story, but in the end it’s so much more than that. It transcends the cliche to create a spectacularly entertaining exploration of what bravery is and what it means, and it manages to because of its characters and the voice of Mattie Ross.

Mattie Ross. Mattie Ross is the beating heart of True Grit. She narrates the story from several decades after she sets out at just 14 to find Tom Chaney, the man who drunkenly shot and robbed her father, who was only trying to help the man.

When we meet her, Mattie has spent her life on a farm, knows nothing of violence or criminality and wouldn’t know where to start tracking a man who turns out to be a hardened murderer.

But here’s the thing. Mattie knows her limitations (mostly), and she knows her strengths. She’s clever and resourceful enough to use her strengths to overcome her limitations to get what she needs. Which is to see Tom Chaney pay for his crime.

We first see her use her intelligence and ability to negotiate a deal to sell back the ponies her father bought before he died, and then to use the money she earns to persuade a tough US Marshall to track Chaney for her. And boy, does she choose a US Marshall.

Here’s how she chooses him. It’s a long quote, but I’m including it because it’s ace:

…”Who is the best marshal they have?”
The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weight that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst man is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”
I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?”

As if that weren’t enough, she then sees Cogburn giving evidence in court, lying about how much a threat a guy he shot was. He’s still her man.

Which brings us to the main fault she doesn’t seem to be aware of. Mattie is reckless, and we get the first hint while she’s boasting about how good a rider she is, telling us she once rode an angry goat through a hedge on a dare.

So, of course she expects to accompany Cogburn (and later, LeBoeuf) as he chases down the scoundrel, Chaney.

Rooster Cogburn. Rooster is as mean as they say, but like Mattie, he has his limitations.

As the sheriff said, he loves to pull a cork. Sometimes he’s drunk and insensible, at one point falling off his horse. He’s also unable to write properly or keep good records, relying on Mattie to do some of his papers for him before they set off.

But, also like Mattie, he is aware of his limitations and works with his strengths. He learned a long time ago that he isn’t suited to a peaceful life, and when Mattie asks him if he likes being a Marshall, he replies:

“I believe I like it better than anything I done since the war. Anything beats droving. Nothing I like to do pays well.”

Of his time trying to live a peaceful life, running an eating place, he says:

“I tried to run it myself for a while but I couldn’t keep good help and I never did learn how to buy meat. It was like a man fighting bees.”

‘Like a man fighting bees.’ I love that.

By the time we learn this, we know already that Mattie would have no trouble keeping good help or buying meat. These two complement each other. Cogburn is not a two dimensional hero for us to worship, and Mattie is not without abilities that make her in some respects more than his equal.

LaBouef. LaBoeuf (pronounced LaBeef) throws a spanner in the works when he appears on the scene, having been offered a large reward to find Chaney, who he has been tracking for shooting a senator and his dog since before he turned up at Mattie’s farm.

LaBouef is a Texas Ranger. His swaggering bravado seems to be empty for much of the novel, hiding a lack of any real ability. Or at least, that would be what we believe if we only listen to Rooster.

Rooster is sceptical of LaBoeuf’s boasting, whether it’s about how long he goes without water while on the trail, or how good a shot he is with his Sharp’s rifle. And while LaBoeuf talks a good game, he instinctively follows Rooster’s lead.

But it’s LaBoeuf’s boasting confidence that is his biggest flaw.

What the novel says about bravery. In ‘I’m looking for the man that shot my paw!’ stories, bravery is usually all about standing up and being a man. It’s something that’s all caught up with violence and masculinity, with the three being linked together until they’re all really the same thing.

But True Grit sin’t like that. And it’d not just because Mattie Ross is a girl. In the end, Rooster is at his bravest not when he charges four men on horseback, firing his two pistols and killing three. He’s just doing what he’s good at then, after all.

Rooster is at his bravest when he carries Mattie for miles through snow after she’s bitten by a snake towards the end of the novel. getting her to safety though sheer determination.

LaBoeuf’s brand of cocksure masculinity is what gets him in trouble, leading him to get bashed over the head as he celebrates saving Rooster with a 300 yard shot from his Sharp’s rifle. His cockiness meant he didn’t tie Chaney up after capturing him.

And Mattie? Mattie is probably the bravest of the three, and it has nothing to do with being a killing machine. It has everything to do with having the determination to see things through to the end. Even in a pit full of snakes and next to a corpse, she acts with the grit it takes to prevent herself from falling further.

Bravery and bravado are different things in True Grit. Bravado gets you in trouble. Bravery gets you out of it.

Can we trust what everyone says? One of the things I love the most about True Grit is the way it captures how people bend the truth to make themselves look great.

It’s most obvious with LaBouef, who even changes the way he says his name to include ‘beef’. But Rooster isn’t immune to it, and neither is Mattie.

Can we trust Mattie’s account, as she narrates what apparently happened decades in the past, or does she put a nice gloss on things like everyone else? What’s true about True Grit?

‘What really happened?’ is an odd question to ask about fiction — obviously nothing really happened. But what really happened in True Grit?

Mostly, I believe Mattie. She is so angry at people ‘telling stories’ that I don’t think she’d go very far beyond the odd bit of polish, making her look a little better and more in control than she was, but you might think differently.

The way to find out is to read True Grit to work it out yourself. You’d be doing yourself a favour.

  • I have never seen the 1969 version with John Wayne. At least, not properly. Since I’m going to be examining why I like the things I like here, and the things I like tend to be about explosions, people doing fights and running about, I should probably get this out of the way early. I do not like John Wayne. Never have. Never will. Even as a kid I thought he was a swaggering div, with his drawl and walk and stupid, stupid belly. Dickhead.

Do yourself a favour and get hold of a copy of True Grit.