Read True Grit
by Charles Portis with Ed Park in the fifth installment of #APStogether, our series of virtual book clubs. Details about how #APStogether works can be found here
passed away earlier this year, and part of why I want to revisit his work is to pay homage to a writer whose books have sustained me for years. True Grit is peerless: a magical historical novel, a revenge story, an utterly convincing western, and yet somehow also brilliantly funny, even absurd. After just a few pages, you won't be able to get the voice of our narrator, the no-nonsense Mattie Ross, out of your head; you'll never forget Rooster Cogburn, the federal marshall she hires to hunt down her father's killer. You don't need me to read
True Grit, a great American novel that's so entertaining it's been filmed twice. But I'm greedy: I want to read it with you.
Day 1 | September 3: From start (p.9) to p.27 ("Then I slept all right.")
Day 2 | September 4: From p.28 to p. 40 ("He had a mustache like Cleveland too.")
Day 3 | September 5: From p.40 ("Some people will say...") to p. 54 ("The defendant is remanded into custody.)
Day 4 | September 6: From p. 54 ("The judge rapped his gavel...") to p. 72 (end of chapter)
Day 5 | September 7: From p. 73 to p. 89 ("I had forgotten about him.)
Day 6 | September 8: From p. 90 to p.107 (end of chapter)
Day 7 | September 9: From p. 108 to p. 123 ("You too, Moon.")
Day 8 | September 10: From p.124 to p.140 ("One of them marshalls was Potter.")
Day 9 | September 11: From p.141 to p. 156 ("My name is Mattie Ross.")
Day 10 | September 12: From bottom of p.157 ("The man with the black mark...") to p.173 ("...don't be stopping again!")
Day 11 | September 13: From p.174 to p. 192 ("...bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!")
Day 12 | September 14: From p. 193 to p. 215 (end)
Day 1 | September 3
Reading: From start (p.9) to p.27 ("Then I slept all right.")
Here is our narrator, Mattie Ross—and a sense of both her directness and quirkiness (in that kicker: “although I will say it did not happen every day”). Best of all, you can’t *not* keep reading.
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”
“Here is what happened.” No beating around the bush for our Mattie. She’s from “Dardanelle in Yell County,” Arkansas. “Yell County” is a perfect place-name for someone of her feistiness.
Can’t resist adding that in My Life, Bill Clinton mentions his step-grandparents are “from Dardanelle, in Yell County.”
Watch how Mattie quickly captures other characters—straightforward descriptions that wander into trivia. Tom Chaney, Frank Ross, Yarnell Poindexter (who “passed away in the flu epidemic of 1918”).
The phrase “true grit” hasn’t popped up in the story itself yet. For now, think about the word “true” and how it might frame what we’re reading.
“Here is what happened” (II): Portis has obviously never been a 14-year-old girl who lived in the 19th century; how does he make us believe the story is “true”?
Mattie and Yarnell go to Fort Smith, where her father was killed, riding in the colored coach; the racist porter uses the n-word at Yarnell, Mattie snaps back.
A jarring reminder of the world Mattie is describing—True Grit unfolds during Reconstruction.
By my reckoning, an elderly Mattie is recounting incidents of 1873, from the vantage of 1928, in a book published in 1968—which we're reading in 2020.
Yarnell was born free in Illinois but kidnapped and brought south “just before the war.” Frank Ross fought for the Confederacy. For all the story’s heroism and high spirits, it unfolds against a world of terrible—terrible even beyond the murder of one’s father.
Mattie and Yarnell witness a public hanging. It feels like something out of the Bible: Three men, each with their own style of last words. On a lighter note, Mattie tries her first tamale: “They are not bad. I had not seen one before.”
Mattie's response to the undertaker asking if she'd like to kiss her father in the coffin is as hard-boiled as it gets: "No, put the lid on it."
The sheriff gets Chaney’s name wrong, says he has no authority to chase him in the “Indian territory (i.e., Oklahoma). Mattie asks who the best federal marshal is to hunt him down. Describes three. “The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn.” Mattie determines to hire him.
Mattie stays at boardinghouse where Chaney shot her father. Some “drummers” (traveling salesmen) are guests. Has to share bed with “Grandma Turner,” who steals the sheets. Arranges her father’s blankets. Poignant, no nonsense: “Then I slept all right.”
Day 2 | September 4
Reading: From p.28 to p. 40 ("He had a mustache like Cleveland too.")
Digression on animals and evil, with a particular dig at our feline friends: “Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces?”
Love how Mattie backs it up with Scripture—great example of Portis locating humor in religion without mockery.
I can’t think of a better bargaining scene in fiction than Mattie negotiating w/Stonehill for the price of the (now unwanted) ponies Frank purchased & his horse (which Chaney made off with).
He starts out condescending: “I admire your sand but I believe you will find I am not liable for such claims.”
As Stonehill is ground down by M.’s bargaining, he mutters, “I would rather be a county road overseer in Tennessee than in this benighted state.” (M. says, “People who don’t like Arkansas can go to the devil!”)
Side note: “the popular steamer Alice Waddell
”—that’s the name of Portis’s mother.
Stonehill on the Indian Territory: “The lawmakers are legion and they range over a vast country that offers many natural hiding places. The marshal travels about friendless and alone in that criminal nation.”
Here & elsewhere, moments of highly stylized speech—“true” transcriptions, or inflected by Mattie’s storytelling chops? (Whatevs, I love how she cuts to the chase after his florid aside: “I would like to sell those ponies back to you…”)
When the melancholy Stonehill. says, “Not a day goes by but there comes some new report of a farmer bludgeoned, a wife outraged, or a blameless traveler set upon and cut down in a sanguinary ambuscade”(!), I hear an echo of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy
I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, & etc, daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies and sea-fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms.
“I will take it to law”: Love how Mattie brandishes the name of her lawyer (J. Noble Daggett) to gain advantage. She’s no ordinary 14-year-old.
A fed-up Stonehill: “Lawyer Daggett! Lawyer Daggett! Who is this famous pleader of whose name I was happily ignorant 10 minutes ago?”
Stonehill’s a northerner who bemoans coming south. “They told me this town was to be the Pittsburgh of the Southwest.”
On this re-read, I burst out laughing—I don’t recall this line ever cracking me up before. Why now?!
Mattie is the author of a “good historical article” about the trial she witnesses. The title is: You will now listen to the sentence of the law, Odus Wharton, which is that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, dead dead! May God, whose laws you have broken and before whose dread tribunal you must appear have mercy on your soul. Being a personal recollection of Isaac C. Parker, the famous Border Judge
M. is critical of “the magazines of today,” editors who “say my article is too long and ‘discursive.’” (I love Mattie’s tic of putting certain words in quotes, as I’m sure you’ve noticed: “scrap,” “moonshiners,” etc.)
Side note: Portis was an acclaimed journalist (for a time based in London & NYC), left the field to write his 1st novel, Norwood
. (True Grit
was #2.) Escape Velocity
collects some of his pieces.
Day 3 | September 5
From p.40 ("Some people will say...") to p. 54 ("The defendant is remanded into custody.)
Two things I wanted to mention earlier: Mattie’s tic of putting certain words “in quotes” (e.g., “scrap”) and her use of cliché (“trilling a joyous anthem to spring,” “There is no knowing what is in a man’s heart”).
Both remind us that (for all that we “hear” the book as an oral account) this is a written document. The unexpected bits in quotations catch us off guard; the clichés, counterintuitively, deepen her character—they’re often glimpses of her belief system.
A side order of politics: How many readers today will know what she means re backing the Democrats & Al Smith “not only because of Joe Robinson”? (JR was Arkansas gov, & VP nominee on losing Smith ticket.) How many readers in 1968 would know?
We see Rooster Cogburn for the first time—an “old one-eyed jasper,” heavyset. He resembles Grover Cleveland. (As with drummers
, I had to look up jasper
: "a rustic simpleton" per the OED.)
“Some people will say, well there were more men in the country at that time who liked Cleveland than did not. Still, that is how he looked.” M. uses a visual cliché and somehow makes it work.
Side note: That expanse of land couldn’t be more topical: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/09/us/supreme-court-oklahoma-mcgirt-creek-nation.html
The court transcript (not official “but faithful enough”) is the one formal divergence from Mattie’s straight first-person narration. What purpose does it serve? Insight into who Rooster is, unclouded by M.’s later feelings.
I always find transcripts riveting (my ears perk up when Nina Totenberg reads Supreme Court doings on NPR) in a reality-hunger sort of way. They’re miniature plays, and this one’s a masterpiece: funny (“Hogs indeed”), exciting, unsettling.
Portis wants us to see, early & up close, Rooster’s deeply compromised nature (there is more to come). Entertaining as transcripts can be, Portis means to trouble us.
After we have a glimpse of Rooster, M. switches to his words: his testimony before Judge Parker. A telling choice: to see this ruthless man of action (whose lack of education is a sore point) chafing against the legal system.
Who he is on paper: “I am a deputy marshal for the U.S. district Court for the Western District of Arkansas having criminal jurisdiction over the Indian Territory.”
We understand why M. chooses Rooster to go after Chaney—as well as his considerable flaws. Hard to read this account of his actions against the Whartons and not think of recent incidents of police violence.
Mattie is right to go after her father’s killer. Was Rooster right to kill two of the Whartons? What about the fact that his partner, Columbus Potter, dies of his wounds from this incident (leaving “a wife and six babies”)?
Our first intimation that revenge is never clear cut.
Day 4 | September 6
From p. 54 ("The judge rapped his gavel...") to p. 72 (end of chapter)
Mattie meets Rooster: “They tell me you are a man with true grit.”
Q: Did the expression precede the book? Even if it didn’t, surely the book and its first movie adaptation etched it into our cultural phrasebook. Cf. this NY Daily News front page from last week (via @rebeccabengal):
A delicate moment—so tender and awkwardly seductive—as Mattie rolls a smoke for Rooster. “Your makings are too dry.” He replies: “Something.” (!)
“I mean business.” Literally: M. wants to nail down an agreement for hunting down Chaney. She has the numbers all worked out. The hashing out of deal points and the (ongoing) formulation of a plan are weirdly mesmerizing.
Rooster suggests they talk and “make medicine”—a pet phrase for R., along with “I miss my guess.”
Rooster “did not have a wife.” M. visits his slovenly lodgings at Chen Lee’s grocery. M. mentions Chen’s refined nature even while referring to him as a “Chinaman.”
The term makes me raise an eyebrow for sure—though perversely I like seeing an Asian character in nineteenth-century Arkansas. Portis gives us a past that’s not all white.
More racial tropes in store at the store: the cat’s name is General Sterling Price, after the losing Confederate leader at the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern (mentioned earlier).
“I don’t see how you can play cards and drink whiskey and think about this detective business all at the same time.” Detective business—this book does have a foot in the hardboiled tradition.
A drunken Rooster serves a “rat writ” and blows away a rodent. An echo of the “writ of replevin” Mattie brandished earlier over Stonehill. A great opening into Rooster’s character—his contempt for “pettifogging lawyers,” the grief he feels for his fallen partner Potter.
Portis knows his guns. R. offers to trade a “twenty-two pepper box” nicknamed the Ladies’ Companion for M.’s unwieldy Colt’s Dragoon. Turns (as things do in Portisland) into a bonkers anecdote about someone named Big Faye.
Another gentle hit of pure comedy as Mattie reads a romance story to Grandma Turner. (I like that they get along even though G.T. steals the sheets.) Contrast the heroine’s Rich People Problems vs. Mattie’s situation.
If you like this aspect of Portis’s humor, his novels The Dog of the South and Masters of Atlantis Portis take it to even more absurd heights.
Portis can include such oddball bits in True Grit and get away with it because the central motivation (revenge) is so strong—we need the comic asides as a distraction from the intensity of her quest.
“Bess married one of the two beaus and he turned out to be mean and thoughtless. I forget which one it was.” Perfect.
Now we meet our third major character—LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger with the cowlick, fancy guns like “you might see today in a ‘Wild West’ show,” smug grin that makes Mattie a little weak in the knees despite herself.
When the Ft. Smith sheriff earlier misnamed Chaney as “Chambers,” M. took it as a sign of his delinquency. Now she discovers that his name is actually Chelmsford, and La Boeuf has been on his trail for a crime in Texas.
The debate between M. and L. about Chelmsford’s fate is brilliant—like the Stonehill convo in a different key. LaBoeuf’s professional, financial, and territorial motives come head to head with Mattie’s purely filial one.
“Would not a hanging in Texas serve as well as a hanging in Arkansas?” “I want Chaney [sic] to pay for killing my father and not some Texas bird dog.” It doesn’t end well.
Day 5 | September 7
From p. 73 to p. 89 ("I had forgotten about him.")
The “famous pleader” Lawyer Daggett seemed almost mythical as Mattie wielded his name vs. Stonehill; so there is something incredibly moving in seeing Daggett’s letter, full of concern, calm, and confidence in her abilities.
It’s an unexpected tearjerker. We know that Mattie’s father has been murdered, but she snapped into action so fast that she hasn’t had time to mourn.
Mattie’s authorial voice is so strong that it’s nice, for a page or two, to step outside it for an outside perspective on her character.
Presumably this letter is something the older Mattie has preserved—thus unaltered by her own slant on things.
“You are her strong right arm now, Mattie, and you are a pearl of great price to me, but there are times when you are an almighty trial to those who love you.”
Stonehill redux: “I have a tentative offer of ten dollars per head from the Pfitzer Soap Works of Little Rock.”
Mattie revisits Rooster, still asleep at 10 a.m. “Men will live like billy goats if they are let alone.” (It’s true.) As a precondition to their agreement, Mattie helps Rooster with his fee sheets.
Four pages of strong dialogue nearly without a break: We can hear them getting closer (“little sister,” he calls her). “Are you still game?” “Game? I was born game, and hope to die in that condition.”
(Correction: I gave the date of the action a bit too early in a previous post—Hayes is president, so it’s 1877–1881.)
Portis undercuts the warmth of the recent Mattie/Rooster scene with Stonehill’s damning accusation “that he rode by the light of the moon with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson.”
Quantrill’s Raiders, which included outlaws Frank and Jesse James, was a pro-slavery/anti-abolitionist guerrilla group, responsible for an 1863 massacre in Lawrence, Kansas.
Portis suggests that although Rooster is a federal marshal, he’s also conceivably a war criminal. (The significance of this went over my head when I first read it; a decade ago, a friend from the South pointed this out to me.)
Hilarious parsing of the expense account: “What he called his ‘vouchers’ were scribbled notes, mostly undated.” Rooster quibbles about date of when he met an informer named Society Red.
Under her questioning, R. says “Let us change the name to Pig Satterfield and make the date the seventeenth of October.” To which she replies: “His Christian name is Pig?”
Later, Stonehill tells M. that Rooster is a “greasy vagabond”; she says “I wanted a man with grit.”
Day 6 | September 8
From p. 90 to p. 107 (end of chapter)
Part of Mattie’s frustration in hearing Rooster and LaBoeuf talking about how to split the bounty, aside from the fact that she already had a deal with R., is that L. has been on Chaney’s trail for 4 months. Had he done his job, Mattie’s father would be alive.
LaBoeuf: “Bibbs was a little senator.” Portis does so much with that name—it’s inherently funny in its smallness, and incommensurate with Mattie’s quest for justice.
“I want him to know he is being punished for killing my father. It is nothing to me how many dogs and fat men he killed in Texas.” Her aim is true.
Note how Mattie refers to the killer as Tom Chaney even as LaBoeuf continues calling him by his (presumably) real name, Chelmsford.
I got a chill up my spine when Mattie says: “Open the door, Toby, and wish me luck. I am off for the Choctaw Nation.” Here we go! (The journey began on the first page, but here’s another jolt, at the halfway point!)
Mattie being forced off the ferry with lies. “The sheriff has a notice on her.” Et tu, Rooster? Mattie: “They are in this story together.” (Playing the lawyer card doesn’t work this time.)
I love all the attention to her pony: the superstition about coloring, what she feeds him, that he’s her “pal.” “He enjoyed this outing, you could tell.”
I think one reason I wanted to read True Grit is because most of it takes place outdoors. Through Mattie, we can step out of our pandemic confinement and fill our lungs with air.
LaBoeuf’s fixation about whipping her, already mentioned twice, comes to fruition at the end of the chapter. It’s interesting how many times it’s come up—as though Mattie’s attraction to him has to be deflected by his cruel streak.
“We resumed our journey in thoughtful silence, the three of us now riding together and pushing deeper into the Territory to I knew not what.” Heightened language working perfectly here.
Side note: Remember Mattie saying Rutherford B. Hayes stole the election from Tilden? Like clockwork, here’s more about the fraught election of 1876, in New York
Day 7 | September 9
From p. 108 to p. 123 ("You too, Moon.")
We now enter the long penultimate chapter—60 pages—that will occupy us for the next four days. You’ll be forgiven for dashing ahead and finishing it all in one go. I found myself unable to put it down.
While R. goes fact-finding, M. muses sternly on religion: “I say nothing against the Cumberlands…but they are not sound on Election. They do not fully accept it. I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play…”
“But I can see no way around it.” Mattie cites chapter and verse. “It was good for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too.” Mic drop! Something magical in how her voice comes barreling through the ages to scold us.
Just for fun, here’s Bill Clinton in mock-stern mode in My Life: “Baptists require an informed profession of faith; they want people to know what they are doing, as opposed to the Methodists’ infant-sprinkling ritual that took Hillary and her brothers out of hell’s way.”
To the boys who have teased the mule, Rooster impersonates one of the James brothers (the notorious Frank and Jesse both also rode with Quantrill). “One of them has grown fat.”
For some reason I find the “grub” strangely appetizing, though Mattie “can scarcely credit it.” Coffee, salt pork, and 120 “corn dodgers.” “Fried bread!”
Mattie tries to tell a ghost story, but Rooster and LaBoeuf are not interested—a periodic reminded that part of her is still a child. Sleep, then: “When I awoke there were snowflakes on my eyes.” Beautiful.
The dugout: “It put me in mind of something made by a water bird, some cliff martin or a swift, although the work of those little feathered masons (who know not the use of a spirit level) is a sight more artful.” What @rebeccabengal would call one of M.’s sick burns.
Portis has grounded the story in tragedy, humor, history. Now it’s pure excitement as we see Rooster in action, visiting Emmett Quincy and the wounded Moon. Now we know why Mattie chose him.
“Who is in there?” “A Methodist and a son of a bitch! Keep riding!” (My new way of answering the phone.)
The dialogue is marvelous—tense and a little funny. Quincy dissembling. R.: “You don’t know anything I want to know, do you?” Q.: “No, and if I did I would not blow.” He’s already said too much.
Day 8 | September 10
From p. 124 to p. 140 ("One of them marshals was Potter.")
Second day of this amazing long chapter. Quincy to Mattie: “You look like someone has worked you over with the ugly stick.” An insult so stupid it might be genius (as in, I’ve never forgotten it).
Rooster on Moon: “He is too young to be getting about on a willow peg. He loves dancing and sport.”
Moon’s confession. “Quincy hated all the laws, but he was true to his friends.” Will meet his preacher brother “on the Streets of Glory,” to which Rooster says, “Don’t be looking for Quincy.”
Hardboiled: “He never played me false until he killed me.” Quincy and Moon are minor players who feel terrifyingly alive and human.
The ambush: Portis tees up the action clearly beforehand, allowing you to visualize effortlessly when it all comes down. Rooster “directing” M. and R., setting the stage.
Love the image of him brushing their tracks away with a cedar bough. (The arboreal specificity—like “willow peg.”) We wouldn’t have thought of that. Rooster did. Rooster’s confidence reflects Portis’s own.
LaBoeuf wants to know what Lucky Ned Pepper looks like. Rooster: “Just go for the littlest one.”
Here begins one of my favorite stretches of this or indeed any book: Rooster’s long monologue, recounting his checkered past, a mix of confession, rue, and boasts. I could read this forever.
Bushwhacker and jayhawker—guerrilla fighters on the pro-slavery / abolition sides, respectively. Rooster claims ignorance of the former term, revising his history.
Rooster is candid about his other misdeeds: “[W]e relieved those gents of over four thousand in coin.”
“I went to Cairo, Illinois, with mine and started calling myself Burroughs and bought a [sic] eating place called The Green Frog
and married a grass widow.” I mean!
The wonderful rambling nature of Portis—the only thing to match it perhaps is Dr. Reo Symes’s monologues in The Dog of the South
Wife wanted him to be a lawyer. “She bought a heavy book called Daniels on Negotiable instruments
and set me to reading it. I never could get a grip on it. Old Daniels pinned me every time.”
Last time I’ll mention Bill Clinton, I swear—from My Life
: “The house had belonged to a man who wrote the national plumbing code back in the early 1950s. There was still a set of those fascinating volumes on the living-room bookshelves…”
Sick burn, Rooster style: “Goodbye, Nola, I hope that little nail-selling bastard will make you happy this time.”
On his son: “You would not want to see a clumsier child than Horace. I bet he broke forty cups.” Only Portis would think of describing clumsiness so absurdly.
Love this murky episode: “The Mormons had run Shaftoe out of Great Salt Lake City but don’t ask me about what it was for. Call it a misunderstanding and let it go at that.”
As though Mattie were pestering him on this point (she’s not). “There is no use in asking me questions about it, for I will not answer them. Olly and me both taken a solemn oath to keep silent.”
In what we would imagine to be a stressful point before the ambush, Portis’s humor flourishes—and there’s something deep going on, too. Rooster likes having Mattie for an audience.
That is, he likes Mattie. He sees in her the best qualities of himself. His absurd unending spiel is part entertainment and part confession. He wants her to know about his life—not just the setbacks but the sheer wild span of it.
“I would give three dollars right now for a pickled buffalo tongue.” Which should sound disgusting, but Portis on food always makes me want to eat.
One man riding against seven. “I think you are ‘stretching the blanket.’”
His harsh droving days. “Fogelson abused us like a stepfather. We didn’t know what sleep was.”
“One of them marshals was Potter.” I picked a bad place to break. We’ll get to the rest tomorrow. No natural reader would stop reading here!
Day 9 | September 11
From p. 141 to p. 156 ("My name is Mattie Ross.")
Picking up from the last quote. Mattie drifts off just as Rooster reaches the climax of his rambling story. “Rooster nudged me and said, ‘I say one of them marshals was Potter.’” “What?”
Rooster’s history of employment: “Nothing I like to do pays well.”
Wonderfully funny, and another reason Rooster’s so loquacious—in a fatherly way, trying to keep Mattie from despair.
Rooster talked all night. I would doze off and wake up and he would still be talking. Some of his stories had too many people in them and were hard to follow but they helped to pass the hours and took my mind off the cold.
Side note: Realize I’ve been like Mattie the past couple nights as I watch the (great) new Charlie Kaufman movie—eyes closing, opening, closing—wait, why are people dancing??…(I need to start earlier.)
“He said he knew a woman in Sedalia, Missouri, who had stepped on a needle as a girl and nine years later the needle worked out of the thigh of her third child.” Pure Portisian inspiration. R. should work at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
Lucky Ned Pepper and his crew make the scene, and everything snaps into focus. L.N.P. is a solid, believable name for a bandit, but the Original Greaser Bob is even better.
Reminds me of pizza naming conventions in NYC—Ray’s Pizza, Famous Ray’s Pizza, Famous Original Ray’s Pizza…
Another great name: Captain Boots Finch of the Choctaw Light Horse. Rooster “goosing” him as he gets a haircut is good stuff, as is the explanation of the Original Greaser Bob’s name.
Personal aside: The OGB inspired not one but two jokes in my novel (Personal Days): a character who has to go by Jack II (there is another Jack), and one named Chris who some call Grease.
The action is marvelously gripping. Through a “mesmerized” Mattie’s eyes we follow the firefight, Ned’s betrayal, the men and horses in motion.
“The scrap did not last as long as it has taken me to describe it.” In one brisk sentence, a canny take on writing, memory, time.
Have been avoiding mention of the two film adaptations of TG, but I’ll just note that though both have their virtues, the action actually works best on the page.
Aftermath, tension between Rooster and LaBoeuf, with M. tacitly taking L.’s side or at least seeing his position. L. wounded; R. gets jealous of M.’s ministrations. M.: “Why are you being so silly?”
The rider Ned killed “was really only a boy, not much older than I.” M. beginning to grasp what revenge really involves. “His mouth was open and I could not bear to look at him.”
Chaney is the villain, but is she complicit?
The robbery of the Katy Flyer (from the KT part of Missouri-Kansas-Texas RR). Tension flaring between L. and R., both comical (L. taking musical requests) and cutting (L. needling R. about Quantrill).
This is also another great scene of Rooster doing his job. He knows who to talk to and how to talk to them. (Also, Gaspargoo is ludicrously vivid in a nonspeaking role.)
Mattie introduces herself: “Perhaps you are wondering who I am.” Finch’s priceless reply: “I thought you were a walking hat.”
Day 10 | September 12
From bottom of p.157 ("The man with the black mark...") to p.173 ("...don't be stopping again!")
A comic grace note as Rooster tries to profit off the dead bandits’ things. Mattie reminds him of his promise to send proceeds to Moon’s brother. He plays dumb. “Was it Austin or Dallas?” “Austin.” “Let’s get it straight.” “It was Austin.”
Side note: Macalester (yesterday’s reading) is the “international headquarters of the Order of the Rainbow for Girls,” a Masonic youth group; Mattie’s father was “buried in his Mason apron by the Danville lodge.”
Mentioning because Portis’s fourth novel, Masters of Atlantis
, might be the alpha and omega of Freemason-adjacent comedy, satirizing all manner of esoteric thought and ritual.
“They say Jay Gould had no heart!” Mattie gives unironic props to the robber baron for “doing something” for the families of the clerk and fireman killed in the train raid.
Makes sure Rooster gets a receipt from the rail agent for the recovered booty. “Business is business.”
Now Rooster tries to shed Mattie; she refuses and LaBoeuf comes to her defense. “All right, let it go…We won’t have a lot of talk about winning spurs.”
“Here is what happened”: The escape of Odus Wharton in Fort Smith. Words first heard in the second paragraph, about her father’s murder, and more recently prefacing the account of the robbery of the Katy Flyer. Mattie’s refrain.
Rooster has a fine funny dig at LaBoeuf: “Yes, this is the famous horse killer from El Paso, Texas. His idea is to put everybody on foot. He says it will limit their mischief.”
L. gives as good as he gets: “I thought that maybe the sun was in your eyes. That is to say, your eye.”
Leads to a bit of comic bliss, as Rooster, LaBoeuf, and for good measure Boots Finch deplete the store of corn dodgers in an orgy of macho target practice.
A drunk Rooster jabbers as they climb “the steep grades of the Winding Stair Mountains” (perfect, dramatic name). It’s a darker counterpoint to his previous monologue before the ambush.
More bitter, though with room for natural oddities (here, twenty-one-foot taperoom). Ends with him plagiarizing something LaBoeuf said (“clabber for brains”).
“I knew Rooster could not be talking about me in his drunken criticism of women, the kind of money I was paying him.”
The perilous trek ends, and we come to the end of this long, thrilling chapter. Portis wastes no time plunging us into the action in the next and final section: Mattie spies Chaney at the river, watering horses.
Amazing tension and comedy: Mattie lies about there being 50 officers, Chaney instructing her how to cock her dragoon if she really means business—orchestrating his own shooting.
“Everything is against me” quickly becomes Chaney’s refrain, but we’ve heard this note before—in Moon and in Rooster. Mattie doesn’t have time for self-pity.
“[B]oth parties were converging on the hollow and the little mountain stream.” Another V-shaped combat scenario. “A terrible volley of fire.”
Day 11 | September 13
From p.174 to p. 192 ("...bold talk for a one-eyed fat man!")
Rooster and Ned parley. An onslaught of exclamation points. “Too thin, Rooster! Too thin! I won’t trust you!” This is the first exchange of words we hear—electrifying, knowing they have a long history together.
“I am Mattie Ross of near Dardanelle, Arkansas. My family has property and I don’t know why I am being treated like this.” Awkward overture.
The grotesque Harold Permalee, making turkey noises; his brother mocks Chaney. Mattie gives us the whole Permalee rundown “A family of criminal trash!”
In the outlaw camp, Mattie holds her own; a sense that Lucky Ned Pepper respects her more than he does Chaney. Brandishing her Daggett connection, to no avail: “I have a good lawyer at home.”
“This will amuse you.” Tone of Lucky Ned Pepper’s account of the death of Billy, not much older than Mattie, is at odds with the boy’s sacrifice. “I don’t say he wan’t [sic] game, I say he was green.”
Brings up “your good friend Rooster.” M. replies, “He is not my friend,” seeing the fix she’s in. She blames his drunkenness for leading them straight to the bandits—and for misloading her gun. (I had forgotten about that.)
Ned abandoning the wounded Chaney (and Mattie). “Everything is against me.” As we witness him being screwed over, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy. No one will meet him at “the Old Place.”
I’m struck this time around at what a richly drawn character Lucky Ned Pepper is. He’s fully imagined—the book’s fourth major character, after Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf. (Arguably on par with LaBoeuf.)
Pen and ink are nowhere to be found, so they make their own. I love when novels smuggle in how-to scenes. (Reminds me of Pa making bullets in Little House in the Big Woods.)
Ned writing his name “in childish characters.” “That is my name. Is it not?” You can hear Mattie’s contempt and pity: “Yes, that is Ned
Alone with Chaney. LaBoeuf to the rescue: “Hands up, Chelmsford!” Rooster’s dramatic entrance below… (Cliffhanger—till tomorrow.)
Day 12 | September 14
From p. 193 to p. 215 (end)
Rooster: “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” Mattie’s narration itself seems energized by the, a breathless stream of four clauses with no commas and four “and”s that seem to echo the four bandits he’s charging at.
Rooster has foreshadowed this showdown in his account of him going against seven men, in exactly this manner (reins in teeth, riding Bo right at them, firing his “two navy sixes).
Back then Mattie found this hard to believe—making this nearly similar incident even more thrilling.
Rooster is so unwavering in his charge that they break their line “ere he reached them”—a startling lapse into poetic language for Mattie. A great visual, describing him snapping his head side to side “to bring his good eye into play.”
And now it’s LaBoeuf’s turn—I love how the action isn’t just a (gripping) set piece, but a way to crystallize all the previous relationships we’ve seen: Rooster and Ned, Rooster and LaBoeuf, Mattie watching it all (indeed, the center of it all).
“The ball flew to its mark like a martin to his gourd.” Second mention of martins and their dwellings, for those of us keeping count.
Mattie’s cheering and LaBoeuf’s moment of pride give Chaney an advantage—we readers too have forgotten about him amid the excitement. The level of orchestration is masterful (to say nothing of pace).
Mattie falls (almost) into the pit, body caught in the opening like a cork in a bottle. Portis takes us swiftly from action to stasis: M. with a broken arm is suspended between sunlight and shadow, victory and doom, childhood and the rest of her life.
We get six pages of just Mattie, assessing her position—a big change in a book filled with her observing and interacting with people. Portis keeps the pages turning because it unfolds like a horror movie. An escalating series of shocks.
A spider that turns out to be a bat, to be *bats* plural. A scrap of cloth revealing—a human skeleton…with a *ball of snakes* in its ribcage! M. using the bones to fend off the rattlers—an organic vision of hell.
Then Chaney plunges into the hole, “scattering the puzzled rattlesnakes every which way.” Unnervingly beautiful: “The movement caused the serpent to roll over with his white belly up and I gave my shoulder a shake and he fell into the darkness below.”
Rescue. Rooster tending to her bite: scarifying it with his dirk knife, rubbing a wad of chewed tobacco over it to draw out the venom. Race against time. Rooster and Mattie riding Little Blackie.
As with everything in this chapter, things are running at a feverish clip, which then escalates. Spurring, whipping, then cutting “a brutal slash on the pony’s withers.” Then rubbing salt into that wound.
The sheer velocity of this book is hard to match. Little Blackie dies (“There never was a nobler pony”), as if Portis has exhausted the very idea of the pony, used up every ounce of its life.
The journey to safety continues, culminating in the amputation of her arm “with a little surgical saw.” We see her mother for the first time. Mattie praises her (“for sitting there and not flinching”), downplaying her own grit.
I just love how this sentence sounds: “I went home on a varnish train, lying flat on my back on a stretcher that was placed in the aisle of a coach.” That now-exotic phrase gives the whole thing an air of earned luxury.
The chronology speeds up over these last few pages. We learn of Rooster’s fate, mostly through rumors received by Chen Lee. It’s a sad decline.
Twenty-five years after she last saw Rooster, Mattie’s brother sends her a clipping from the Memphis Commercial Appeal
(where Portis once worked).
Rooster is appearing in a Wild West show, his billing designed to attract both sides: HE RODE WITH QUANTRILL! HE RODE FOR PARKER!
Cole Younger and Frank James are also part of the show, men who had fought alongside Rooster “under Quantrill’s black standard…and now this was all they were fit for…”
“[T]o show themselves to the public like strange wild beasts of the jungle.” She’s judging them the way her younger self *didn’t* judge Rooster, back when she needed him for his grit, to do the job she needed done.
Mattie learns that Rooster just died a few days ago. The poignancy is almost unbearable: To be just a few days late, after a quarter century apart!
I love how Mattie doesn’t break character as she describes reburying Rooster in her family plot and shrugging off town gossip. Plus we learn, at last, her occupation: “It is true that I love my church and I love my bank.”
Of *course* she’s a banker—entirely fitting for someone who at age fourteen got her money’s worth—getting Stonehill to buy back the ponies, hiring Rooster to track down Chaney.
There’s humor here, too: “I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to make him cashier.” She’s a “woman with brains and a frank tongue and one sleeve pinned up and an invalid mother to care for” and thus not obvious marriage material.
As a friend noted, there’s something refreshing about a heroine *not* winding up married or otherwise paired off at the end of a book.
True Grit offers so much escapism—the quest, the open spaces, the action—but is rigorously unromantic (with a small-r) when it comes to love.
But watch how Portis balances the character we love—her voice, her grit—with a note of unresolved sadness. She turns to LaBoeuf and his cowlick in the last paragraph.
“Time just gets away from us.” Are you crying yet?
The last sentence has the ring of a classic, restating the opening, but now invested with other losses. Mattie accomplished what she set out to do, but at what cost? An arm, and more.
“This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.” *Now* you’re crying.