Let’s take one moment to mark the passing this week of Charles Portis, who wrote "True Grit," a story of the American soul.
Who ever wrote a better opening to a book than this:
"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. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band."
Mattie Ross is surely after justice, and just as surely she knows vengeance is the Lord’s alone, but she presses to that end as well – and pays a high price. But there is no hint of regret in her voice as she tells the story many years later.
Let’s get this part out of the way. Which "True Grit" movie is better, the 1969 Henry Hathaway/John Wayne version or the 2010 Coen brothers/Jeff Bridges/Hailee Steinfeld version? I find them both to be glorious in their own ways – both high in my all-time top 10 – but the Coen brothers stick more closely to the book and its distinct language and characters. It feels less Hollywood.
I think there’s something to be said for sticking to the book, at least when it’s one of such quality. For that matter, there’s much to be said for just, you know, reading the book instead of waiting for the movie, though one can do both. I love the movies, but in truth we’d all be in a better place if we spent more quiet time with books.
Young Mattie is right and righteous, even as she is sometimes wrongheaded and prone to court danger that’s larger than she knows. People seldom have simple or pure motives.
But she is determined. She seeks out Marshal Cogburn because he is said to have "true grit," and that’s a fair assessment, but in fact she is the one with true grit. She sees it through and, in due time, settles all accounts. She is the best of what we see in ourselves.
The book is set less than 150 years ago, in an older America that’s not as far removed from us as we might think. It’s still a good read. It still has much to tell us.
Jeff Fox is The Examiner’s editor. Reach him at 816-350-6365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s on Twitter at @FoxEJC.