True Grit: A Novel, by Charles Portis

I was 14 when the John Wayne version of True Grit was released and I saw the movie before I read it the first time. John Wayne, in his only Oscar performance, will probably always be glued to any reading.

While the book was amazingly faithful to the plot and language of the book, there are some broad differences, especially in the characters. Rooster Cogburn was only in his late 40s, with a broad moustache. John Wayne was too old and too cleancut. Mattie Ross was only 14 going on 41. Kim Darby was too soft and too old. “Le Beef” the Texas Ranger. Well, Glenn Campbell was pretty but no actor and wasn’t built to handle the stiff dialogue of the book.

Mattie, at 14, is probably the smartest, shrewdest, and most ardent Methodist of her family, if not the whole west. She manages to out bargain everyone in the book, saving her attorney as the final weight in her favor. She arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after her father is killed by a man who worked for him. Wanting justice for her father she hires Cogburn to find him with the provision that she ride along. She wants to see justice done and will deal it out herself if no one else does. She learns that the killer is also wanted in Texas, under another name, for killing a senator, which brings the Texas Ranger into the story.

The trio heads across the river to chase the killer, who is now riding with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang.

Cogburn is kind of an enigma. Mattie hires him because he has the reputation of being the toughest of the local marshalls, which comes out in court testimony early when he admits to killing about six outlaws a year and is suspected of tampering with evidence. He was part of Quantrill’s Rangers during the Civil War, a pretty evil group that was disavowed by the Confederate government. He also came into his current line of work because it was available after spending off the takings in a robbery. Still, he does the right thing for Mattie over his own doubts and saves her life at the end.

He’s a “one-eyed fat man” with a drinking problem and a past he’d rather not talk about. Portis still manages to pull a hero out of him.

Filled with funny and memorable dialogue, heart-thumping action sequences, and a final shootout unlike any other it’s one of the only western books I’ve read and loved. So every few years it needs to come back off the shelf to amaze me one more time.