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Book Review: True Grit

Published: November 5, 2010

Author: Charles Portis

Publisher: Harry N. Abrams

Genres: Western, Classics

Okay, Dad, you were right.

After fifteen years of snubbing, I finally rescued True Grit from her lonely vigil on a basement bookshelf during a visit home last Christmas. The book was an original hardcover edition that had been well-loved and read to the point that the spine was soft that Dad had discovered at a library book sale in Minneapolis. He strongly encouraged me to read it when I was just about the same age as the main character, Mattie. Being the slightly snobbish teenager I was, I blew off the “western” as inevitably just another dry account of horses and dust and six-shooters.

As a kid raised on science fiction and fantasy (also due to my dad’s influence), I should have known better than to judge a book by its genre.

On the twelve-hour drive back to Kansas, I started to read, the dust cover crackling under its protective library plastic, and dove into an adventure rich with good storytelling and fantastic characters. I was hooked.

If I had read this book at fourteen, I would have instantly been crazy for Mattie. She’s everything I wanted to be at fourteen (and everything I still endeavor toward a decade and a half later). She’s practical, brave, and shrewd. She fearlessly bargains with grizzled men twice her age and stands up to some of the most terrifying criminals in the territories without blinking. She knows how to spot someone trying to take advantage of her and she keeps cool in a crisis. I also love the fact that she doesn’t really give a damn what anyone thinks of her—she does what’s best for her and for her family without looking back. Portis reflects Mattie’s practical nature in the style the book is written in as well—the narrative comes from Mattie’s point of view and he gives Mattie a writing style that reflects her no-nonsense character with a focus on the events rather than on feelings and other stereotypically “feminine” attributes.

A minor spoiler (though I promise I won’t give details): I’m not sure how I would have handled the snakes at fourteen. Even reading it now I had to keep myself from squealing, shift in my chair a bit, and skim the passage to get the feeling of serpentine flesh off my skin. But if you have a snake-phobia and choose to avoid reading because of that, you’ll be missing out on an amazing piece of work.

Rooster Cogburn was also very well-drawn as a character and is definitely worth attention. Mattie obviously held him in high regard, in spite of his shortcomings, and the fact that he’s not drawn as a shiny hero is refreshing. But any characterization of this story that emphasizes him at the detriment of focusing on Mattie does the core of this narrative a disservice, because it really is Mattie’s story.

One of my friends on GoodReads said that he doesn’t understand why this isn’t taught in more lit programs, and I completely agree, especially with the rising trend toward emphasizing good female characters. Mattie is uncommon and a splendid change in a literary world too loaded with conniving, back-biting, flaky and egotistical women drawn in shallow stereotype. True Grit is definitely a book that I’ll be passing on to anyone I can get to open the cover.

So yes, Dad, it was definitely a fantastic read. I’m just disappointed that I didn’t take your advice sooner. I suppose this means I’ll have to pick up some Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen soon, too. And maybe try some alligator steak.

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