Say what you will about the evils of film adaptations of the literary greats, but there is surely nothing better than a film that encourages people to pick up and try the books on which they were based. True Grit by Charles Portis is a good example of this, a book I would never have sought out but for having thoroughly enjoyed the recent adaptation by the Coen Brothers.
For those that haven't seen the film or read the book, the story is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross whose father has recently been murdered by "the scoundrel" Tom Chaney. Determined that his death should not go unanswered and conscious that the Marshall's office may lack motivation in their pursuit of her father's killer, she travels to place a bounty of her own and see Chaney killed or brought in for justice. Informed that Rooster Cogburn has true grit, she hires him and at length persuades him that she must accompany him on the pursuit. But the West is still wild and Chaney is not alone.
I should stress at this point that I have very little experience of Westerns in their written form from which to draw any kind of judgement except by looking at the book from the point of view of literature generally. Having been assured by the introduction that this is an "American Classic" I am sure this is only fair, but I may as well be honest about it.
Portis' characterisation of Mattie, really the most important character in the book, is put across through her own narration. For example, we get a sense that she is a keen student of "the good book" through the large number of bible passages and moral asides that punctuate the main narrative. I'll be honest and say that at times this narrative structure made reading the relatively short volume difficult for me personally. It is easy enough to find Mattie's pious ramblings a little irritating and self-righteous in places. I appreciate that this is probably a side-effect of making a fourteen-year-old the main voice of the book, but at the same time Mattie regular swings away from the main plot and in any case the tale is supposedly being told by an older Mattie several years either.
What these asides succeed in doing is giving a sense of both the wildness of the setting and also the emotional growth that Mattie acquires through her dealings with Marshall Rooster Cogburn, easily the most interesting character and an excellent mirror for Mattie. The entire story is more a less about the ways in which these two very different characters misjudge each other and come to appreciate the grit in each other. This is an emphasis clearer in the book than in either of the film adaptatons, although it is also probably the one theme in the book better interpretted into the "John Wayne version" of the film.
Mattie's journey is nice and circular. She hires Cogburn believing he will show no mercy to Tom Chaney, near enough looses all faith in his skills and his loyalty and is then shamed when he proves himself. Cogburn equally starts his journey believing Mattie to be entirely impulsive and childlike and comes to respect her intelligence and her bravery out in the dangerous West. Portis has carefully designed each to be a perceived opposite of the other; young to old, smart to brash, pious to... well drunk mostly. This contrast makes their eventual bond all the more poignant and thought-provoking.
The book has surprisingly little to say about revenge or retribution considering the basis of its plot. I am unclear whether the dramatic ending, which doesn't shy away from sadness, is intended to have some divine justice attached like some kind of metaphysical price tag. Mattie does not seem to make much reference to these final events as such and I wonder whether they are more about cementing the two characters firm but now distant mutual respect.
I cannot say whether I would recommend the book to lovers of Westerns because clearly I have nothing to compare it with but I can say whether I would recommend it generally. I think the answer is yes, but the book does have its downsides. Mattie's narration lacks literary flare and many of the images in the book are visual to the point that they actually work better on screen than in my head. But it is a short contained read with absorbing characters and I can see how it could become the favourite of some readers even if it's not mine.
It was also a welcome entry point to a genre I have long respected but never properly delved into and I can genuinely say I will be seeking out similar books in future. Not a resounding endorsement I know, but an endorsement nevertheless!