Friday, January 3, 2014

Have You Read This Classic?

My book club read True Grit by Charles Portis for our January selection. It was my turn to choose the book, and after reading an article in the Kansas City Star about a book group that had read this classic, I chose it. I thoroughly enjoyed this quick read and hope the other members of the book club are enjoying it, too. We meet January 14th to discuss the book.

Charles Portis wrote a novel titled Norwood before he wrote True Grit. The author, once a newspaper writer, hails from Arkansas as does Mattie, the narrator of True Grit, which has become a classic comic western. Now, there's a genre that you don't run into all that often. Published in 1968, the book has been revived again and again after two movies were made based on the book. The first one starred John Wayne and Kim Darby along with Glen Campbell. This film version followed closely on the heels of the 1968 release of the book, hitting the movie screens in 1969. Much later, 2010 to be exact, the Coen brothers did a remake starring Beau Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld. I have seen the first film more than once but not the latter one. Somehow, John Wayne will always be Rooster Cogburn for me.

For those who have not read the book or seen either movie, the story takes place in Arkansas, home of Mattie, the narrator of the story. Mattie tells us the story from the other end of her life, but it's about what happened when she was 14 and lost her father. A hired hand named Tom Chaney shot and killed her father, stole his horse and rifle and two gold pieces. Mattie is a no-nonsense young woman who sets out to avenge her father's death by finding and capturing the killer. She looks for a mean lawman to help her in this quest. Marshall Rooster Cogburn is the the man she chooses. Overweight, having only one eye and a drinker, Rooster takes the job when Mattie offers him a goodly sum. He intends to leave her in town and head out on his own. He ends up accompanied by a Texas lawman by the name of LaBoeuf--prounounced in Arkansas as LaBeef, which is the literal translation of LaBoeuf! Mattie follows them as they move on to Indian Territory and they are finally forced to take her along.

The hunt and chase moves on from there with Mattie's narrative drawing the reader into the story and holding interest to the very end. What this young girl endures on this adventure is a great tertament to having 'true grit' the characteristic she looked for in the man she chose to help her find her father's killer. The characters are fully drawn, the wit cleverly done on every page and an appealing story for the young adult group as well as adults. Besides all that, the book has a wonderful sense of place and time. Mattie Ross is as classic a character as Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. In fact, Charles Portis may be called the Mark Twain of the second half of the 20th century. 

Comic western--maybe that doesn't appeal to you but I still highly recommend this book. It might make you take a look at yourself and others you know to see if they have 'true grit' like Rooster and Mattie. Find the book at Amazon or check your local library. My library found seven copies for me through their interlibrary loan program. 

I had one, and only one, thing that bothered me about the book. The author uses a very formal way of speaking in the dialogue, no contractions as we find in our normal everyday speech. Perhaps he meant it as one more bit of subtle humor, but for some reason, it disturbed me. That's a pretty small complaint and in no way detracts from all the other good aspects of this well-written novel.

I saw the movie before reading the book, which is the reverse of what I normally do. I often think the movie does not do justice to the book. The original version with John Wayne was very well done and stayed quite true to the book. But guess what? I liked the book better than the movie which is almost always the case for me. 

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