Uh, before you read this, get yourself to the bookstore and pick up a copy of Charles Portis' True Grit... better yet, pick up two or three copies, because you will want to lend the book to friends and family, and you most likely won't get it back. It's a quick read... I can wait. Good, no need to thank me.
I very rarely view films in the theater- most of the recent blockbuster movies have lacked any appeal. That being said, the siren song of a film version of a novel by one of my favorite authors, made by two of favorite filmmakers was enough to lure me into the local multiplex.
While the two film versions of True Grit are about a fourteen-year-old girl's quest to avenge the murder of her father, the novel is about an elderly woman recounting her quest to avenge the murder of her father when she was fourteen (a subtle distinction, but one which gives the novel a power that neither film can quite match).
The novel True Grit is not a Bildungsroman, the character of Mattie Ross is presented (albeit by an elderly Mattie Ross) as a fully developed individual- a hard-bargaining, stiff-necked, precocious character who pursues her goal in single-minded fashion. Throughout her journeying, her attitudes do not seem to change, although change comes to her in a very literal, gruesome fashion.
The geographic setting of the book is explicit, Mattie begins her journey at her family's land holdings in Yell County, Arkansas, near Dardanelle, traveling to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where her father was killed by a hireling, to obtain his body and to commence a manhunt for the killer, who has fled to the Choctaw Nation in the Indian Territories. The action takes place during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, with the events being narrated at the time of Al Smith's presidential campaign. Much like Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, which was released in the same year, the book concerns the transition of a lawless frontier to a settled region. In one of the book's asides, Mattie gives a short account of the Permalee boys Harold, Farrell, Carroll, and Darryl: A family of criminal trash! While Harold and Farrell are killed in the mounted affray which forms the narrative's climax, Carroll Permalee lived long enough to be put to death in the Electric Chair, and not long afterward Darryl Permalee was shot to death at the wheel of a motorcar by a bank "dick" and a constable in Mena, Arkansas.
Another major thematic element in the book is the difference between good men and bad, with Mattie's father being "the gentlest, most honorable man who ever lived" while his murderer is a coward, and trash, with a cur nature. Most of the men portrayed in the book occupy a middle ground, with deputy U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, hired by Mattie to bring the killer to justice, having more in common with Sergio Leone's amoral gunmen than with the sanitized heroes of television westerns. Cogburn switches between the roles of a Falstaffian buffoon, a relentless hunter, a ruthless killer, and a protector throughout the book. Even Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, who joins Mattie and Cogburn, is motivated primarily by the prospect of a bounty on the killer's head, and, in a brutal scene, throws Mattie to the ground and thrashes her with a willow switch in order to dissuade her from joining in the manhunt (and, probably, because she has a "saucy manner").
Hanging over the action like a grisly specter is the Civil War, with the particularly bloody frontier war casting a long shadow. Cogburn is portrayed as a former member of Quantrill's Raiders, and the Lawrence Massacre is mentioned in a pointed exchange between Confederate veterans Cogburn and LaBoeuf:
"I was told in Fort Smith that you rode with Quantrill and that border gang."
Rooster made no reply.
La Boeuf said, "I have heard that they were not soldiers at all but murdering thieves."
Rooster said, "I have heard the same thing."
"I heard they murdered women and children at Lawrence, Kansas."
"I have heard that too. It is a damned lie."
"Were you there?"
"The Lawrence raid."
"There has been a lot of lies told about that."
"Do you deny that they shot down soldiers and civilians alike and burned the town?"
"We missed Jim Lane. What army was you in, mister?"
"I was at Shreveport first with Kirby-Smith-"
"Yes, I heard about all them departments. What side was you on?"
"I was in the Army of Northern Virginia, Cogburn, and I don't have to hang my head when I say it."
While the novel's events allow Cogburn a moment of heroic altruism, the novel is not the story of his redemption. In an attempt to follow up on him in later years, Mattie relates that he had gone north to Wyoming with a reckless character named Tom Smith where they were hired by stock owners to terrorize thieves and people called nesters and grangers. It was a sorry business, I am told, and I fear Rooster did himself no credit there in what they called the "Johnson County War." While not named in the novel, it's possible that Rooster could have been one of the heavies in Shane (veiled fanfic reference?).
True Grit is not unrelievedly grim, there are numerous humorous asides (as Mattie admits, she has a "discursive" writing style), and an absurd interlude in the middle of the manhunt. My favorite humorous passage in the book is this brilliant aside, which is side-splittingly funny:
I was sick the next day. I got up and went to breakfast but I could not eat much and my eyes and nose were running so I went back to bed. I felt very low. Mrs. Floyd wrapped a rag around my neck that was soaked in turpentine and smeared with lard. She dosed me with something called Dr. Underwood's Bile Activator. "You will pass blue water for a day or two but do not be alarmed as that is only the medicine working," she said. "It will relax you wonderfully. Grandma Turner and I bless the day we discovered it." The label on the bottle said it did not contain mercury and was commended by physicians and clergymen.
Along with the startling color effect the potion also caused me to be giddy and light-headed. I suspect now that it made use of some such ingredient as codeine or laudanum. I can remember when half the old ladies in the country were "dopeheads."
You have read the book by now, no? If you haven't, you are out of the will. If you have, read it again- you will no doubt find something incredible that you may have missed. True Grit is Charles Portis' best novel, even if it's not quite my favorite.
Oh, and about the corn dodgers? There are plenty of recipes for anyone interested in making up a batch of trail rations or "pigeons".