Tuesday, February 08, 2011

True Grit: A Classic Read

February 8, 2011

Finished reading Charles Portis's True Grit this morning. Really enjoyed it and will definitely read it again. I especially enjoyed the journey of Rooster, Mattie and LeBoeuf, the wonderful details of how they ate corn dodgers and how they made coffee, plus the excellent description of the outlaw's crude dugout, and how they ate the Indian dish "sofky." But I think the thing I enjoyed the most is the weather ("When I awoke there were snowflakes on my eyes.")

Plus, the glancing references to history:

Mattie: "Do you know Jesse James?'

Rooster: "I don't remember him. Potter tells me he was with us at Centralia and killed a Yankee major there. Potter said he was a man little viper then, though he was only a boy. Said he was meaner than Frank. That is going some, if it be so. I remember Frank well. We called him Buck then. I don't remember Jesse."

Lots of nuance and historical detail in that short paragraph. It gets even better at the end of the book when Mattie meets Frank James, who is drinking Coca-Cola in a circus railroad car. Glancing history, like this, is riddled throughout the book and Portis shows impeccable taste in how he spins it out. I also love how he illustrates the inconclusiveness of several plot points: Mattie never hears from LaBoeuf again, the second gold coin is never found, her father's stolen horse, Judy, is never accounted for. Even though this is fiction, the enigma of how actual historical events play out, rings very, very true.

Another thing that is just wonderful is the glancing detail missing in both movies. As one example, in the book, when the dead outlaws, Moon and Quincy, are loaded onto their horses, Mattie notes, "The dun horse belonging to Moon bolted and bared his teeth and would not permit his dead master to be placed on his back. A less sensitive horse was found to serve."

And while I raved about the Coen's usage of delayed reports of firearms at a distance, it was spelled right out in the book, "When they reached the crest they paused and turned our way and Rooster fired a pistol in the air. I saw the smoke before the noise reached us."

One embarrassment for the Coens, a line was added in the new film, comparing LaBoeuf to a "rodeo clown." (Mattie compares LeBoeuf's 1876 gun rig to a "Wild West Show" in the book, but that works because she is telling the story in 1903) "Cowboy Competitions" did not originate until the late 1880s and it wasn't known as rodeo until the 1920s and rodeo clowns weren't introduced for another couple decades, but, hey, being off by a half century is no biggie, eh?

Thanks to Dan DeWeese for spotting the "rodeo clown" line.

If you'd like to read True Grit in paperback, we are going to be offering a True West book of the month club discount for Maniacs and readers of this blog. Let me know if you want one.

Worked on a variety of studies over the weekend including this abstract called Gunsight Butte:

"History must always be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, not a science, but an art."

—Phyllis McGinley

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