True Grit - Novel
Updated: Mar 10
For the past 16 years of my life, I have grown up in, and still live in, Ridgway, CO. I found out that one of its most famous accomplishments was to volunteer as Fort Smith, Arkansas for the classic western film, True Grit starring John Wayne.
Had I seen the movie, I would have gladly discussed about it here, but that’s not until in the near future. For the time being, I’m gonna talk about the novel, but that in and of itself is still worthy of mention. Originally written by Charles Portis, a newspaper reporter turned novelist, this was the most popular out of the five novels he ever wrote. I don’t know if it changed how Western stories were perceived at the time, but this was a totally different beast from the pack and left behind quite a legacy in its wake. Thanks to the two movies made off of this story – not just the one with John Wayne, but also the one with Jeff Bridges - that legacy only went on to be immortalized.
The whole story was told from the perspective of Mattie Ross, who recalled when she ventured out into the Indian Territory - where runaway criminals fled and were considerably harder to track down and incarcerate – in 1878 in pursuit of Tom Chaney, an assassin who murdered her father, Frank Ross, in Fort Smith, AK. In addition to killing him, he stole from him “his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces“. While she and her family went to Fort Smith to pick up Frank’s body and coffin, Mattie decided to stay behind so she can hunt down her father’s killer herself. With vengeance in her heart, she planned on finding a U.S. Marshall with the relentless strength and persistence necessary to track him down for her, or, as she envisioned him, ‘a man of true grit’.
Her best bet? A drunkard named Rooster Cogburn, whose residence was with a Chinese grocer named Lee. Originally, he was hesitant on accepting the mission, because he believed that this was no place or arrangement for a kid like Mattie. Things got more complicated for Mattie, though, when she crossed paths with a young man who was also after Tom Chaney: a Texas Ranger named LaBeouf. He was set to incarcerate Tom Chaney, or, as he revealed his true identity to be, Theron Chelmsford, for murdering a senator in cold blood back in El Paso, and this only put him and Mattie in quarrels over how to bring him to justice. Meanwhile, the three of them also heard that Tom Chaney, while in the territory, joined up with a band of robbers led by the nefarious Lucky Ned Pepper. LaBoeuf’s proposition with Cogburn and his reasons for catching Tom caught more of Cogburn’s interest then Mattie‘s original proposition did, and Mattie was starting to lose more and more of her grip with them. Eventually, after buying a pony of her own and even tracking down both Cogburn and LaBoeuf after being left behind by them, she caught up with them and trekked out with them into the Choctaw Nation, which, according to Mattie the narrator, we would’ve recognized as eastern Oklahoma, except with hills and pine forests.
Along the way, they ran into Moon and Quincy, two thugs who were in cahoots with Ned Pepper and his gang and who knew about their whereabouts. After a brief fight with them, and even with Ned Pepper and the gang themselves immediately afterwards, Cogburn, LaBoeuf, and Mattie took rest in McAllester‘s, where they brought in the horses that the two thugs stole while also arranging burials for the thugs. Afterwards, they set out into the Winding Stair Mountains, where, during their rest there, Mattie ran into Tom Chaney himself, and soon, for the second time, with Ned Pepper and his gang. This all was to build up into an epic confrontation between Rooster Cogburn and the entire robber gang, and into a showdown between Mattie Ross and Tom Chaney, the results of which landed Mattie into a much stickier and more frightening predicament then she ever would’ve thought possible.
The first thing I’ll say about the story is that Mattie Ross was one of the most fascinating child characters I ever had the pleasure of knowing in literature. She had a confidence and willpower that helped her make her way through any tough situations she’s landed in, and as a result, they made her as easily competent as the adult characters in the story. Fortunately, these characteristics were also a touch subdued so that it didn’t feel contrived or unrealistic. One particular example I know of occurred when Mattie was speaking with Cochran and LaBoeuf at Lee’s place. She was losing patience with them and kept demanding that Cogburn stick by her proposition and that LaBoeuf have no part in the expedition, all because LaBeouf’s suggestions in bringing Chaney in were vastly different from hers. This convinced me that for all her best interests and strong motives, Mattie was still a teenager, and one who was still trying to navigate her way into the trials of the real world.
Rooster Cogburn, from the very first time we met him, was delightfully incompetent and unpredictable. But when he went out on the manhunt for Tom Chaney with Mattie and LaBoeuf, not only did his unpredictability come into full play by then, but he also showed off a certain complexity to his character that slowly made us root for and even sympathize with him. In the middle of their journey, he talked to Mattie about his past adventures, one of which went into detail on how he had a role in a bank robbery in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and how he faced off against a gang all on his own and took them out single-handedly. This, combined with his alleged recklessness in his criminal pursuits, all played a part in how society gave him something of a cold shoulder ever since he became a U.S. marshal. So, Cogburn didn’t disrespect society as much as he distrusted it. These qualities ultimately made him feel more human the more we got to know him, especially through Mattie.
Tom Chaney, the criminal that set the story in motion, was about as cowardly as Mattie made him out to be. From the little time we spent knowing him in person, he represented the underhandedness, stealth, and half the time, the insecurities of the everyday scoundrel who roamed the Wild West. I believe his cowardliness was shown best when he was put in charge by Ned Pepper to watch over Mattie while he and the others were away tending to their criminal businesses. His response was, “Everything is against me.” Add onto that the fact that every time he made a murder, he quickly ran off to where he hoped no one could have found him. Yeah, Mattie couldn’t have described him better.
LaBeouf may not have been as interesting as Cogburn or Mattie, but he was a decent young man whose by-the-book attitude and approach to tracking down Chaney caused interesting, if not major, conflicts to occur amongst the trio as they ventured into the territory for their targets. But now, what was the one thing that kept him from being not interesting, not minding his personality?
Well, that leads into what else I applaud the story for: its deeply profound moral tests of character.
I may not have read or seen enough Westerns to make a legit judgment on how they work, but my understanding is that the key component to making a good Western is a strong series of circumstances that challenged the pursuers’ inner psyche, and left hanging the question to whether or not the adventure at hand would leave its participants as different people afterwards.
Rooster Cogburn‘s challenge was to see if he could still have done right when he was someplace where society wouldn’t have pressured him, and if he did have what it took to still enact his own sense of justice the way Mattie would initially have expected out of him. You can say this was his chance of redemption, in certain areas.
In LaBoeuf’s case, there was one time when he misfired after being ordered by Cogburn not to shoot until given his signal. This was a good example of how even someone who bore the name and outfit of “ranger” could still have made mistakes, and that they were still human. It was when he, Cogburn, and Mattie faced off Tom Shaney, Ned Pepper and the gang all at once when he got his chance to correct his mistakes and help his friends when it was absolutely crucial to do so.
In my opinion, Mattie also counted as having gone through a trial of events that challenged her inner psyche. Throughout the adventure, Mattie remained calm even when seeing someone get shot in front of her or when held hostage by the one man she sought to kill. But it was when she faced off against him when her being challenged really reached its peak. When she finally shot Tom Chaney, the force from her pistol propelled her backwards into a snake pit and when she was down there, she... Well, I might as well let Eliot Fremont-Smith of The New York Times fill me in.
“True Grit is when you are a 14-year-old girl from Yell County, Arkansas, and you’ve just shot a dangerous outlaw and the gun’s recoil has sent you backward into a pit, and you are wedged in the pit and sinking fast into the cave below where bats are brushing against your legs, and you reach out for something to hold on to and find a rotting corpse beside you and it’s full of angry rattlers, and then it turns out you didn’t kill the outlaw, he’s up at the rim of the pit laughing at you, about to shoot you – and you don’t lose your nerve. That’s true grit.”
To put it another way, Mattie first started the journey looking for someone with true grit, that being Rooster Cogburn. But when she least expected it, and within the direst of situations, she established some of her own in the process. So, in a way, this journey had shades of a path to self-discovery for Mattie.
This kind of character development was huge for another reason: when we think of women or children in Westerns, we usually tend to think of them as being the damsels in distress or having little to no involvement in the action. Mattie, who was a young lady at the age of 14, proved that sometimes, the unlikeliest person can make a world of difference. This established her as the three reasons why she was so special: she was a strong female character, a strong child character, and most of all, a slyly superb role model for both.
Would you be shocked if I said that it’s been a while since I last saw Jeff Bridges’ True Grit, and that I haven’t a chance to see all of John Wayne’s True Grit? Well, knowing that I’ve read the original story – twice – I am now looking forward to scoping out both movies.
Well, whichever medium it is presented in, True Grit was a strong morality tale that embellished the spirit of the Wild West, and at the same time, took it to different directions never explored in Westerns before then. But with a quirky edge, a robust journey into the unknown, a troupe of excellent protagonists, and as palpable a sense of humor as that of Rooster Cogburn himself, it grew to also become a story that transcended generations and barriers, leaving us with the assuring knowledge that change can come from anyone, from anywhere, and even from within.
Fremont-Smith, Eliot. “Books of the Times.” The New York Times, June 12, 1968.