Book #268: True Grit Review

Hello, Dearest Reader!  It’s my inaugural book review on this site, and it marks the first step on my journey to read for a lifetime.  I feel like I should break a bottle of champagne on my laptop (or something)  in commemoration.

There are a few things you’ll be able to expect from my book reviews…besides honesty.  Brutal, complete honesty.  From here on out, I’ll be numbering each review so I can keep track on my way to book number 3,000.

 

“But wait,” you ask.  “Why is True Grit read number 268 when this is your first blog entry?”  Well, frankly, it’s because I have the other 267 logged on Goodreads.  (You can check out my FAQ page for more helpful information.)

The other thing you can expect is for most reviews to be split up into three categories: the good, the bad, and the ugly (or “GBU”).  This is partially because I want readers to be able to find information really quickly—after all, why spend time sifting through a post when you could be…oh, I dunno…reading a book—and mostly because I super love Clint Eastwood.  I’ll do my best to not spoil books too terribly much, but these are reviews, after all.  If you don’t want any spoilers and just want my recommendations, scroll down to the rating at the end of this article.

So, without further ado, here we go!


When I finished reading True Grit, I immediately posted a review on Goodreads that summed up my feelings exactly:

“Every time I opened this book, I could smell a crackling campfire and the musty-sweet aroma of tired horses. That’s how good this book is.”

I grew up in the American West, and as you would expect, I spent most of my time on horseback.  I started riding horses when I was 9, and once my parents got divorced, I helped pay for riding lessons by working on my ranch.  In high school, I was a card-carrying member of my FFA chapter, and I’d started barrel racing for money.

Needless to say, I fancied myself a real cowgirl.

From the very first page, True Grit transported me back to my childhood.  The novel follows the story of Mattie Ross, a precocious fourteen year old girl who is hellbent on avenging her father’s wrongful murder at the hands of his farmhand, Tom Cheney.  She attaches herself to Rooster Cogburn, a federal marshal famous for shooting first and asking questions later, and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, who is after Cheney for shooting and killing a Texas senator and his dog.

As you would expect, neither Rooster nor LaBoeuf (pronounced “LaBeef”) are keen on having Mattie tag along, but she insists–if by “insists,” you mean “she fords the Arkansas river and chases them into Indian Territory.”  That Mattie, she’s a spunky one, let me tell you.  Rooster and LaBoeuf resign themselves to having Mattie along, and they set off in pursuit of Tom Cheney.  They find him, but their pursuit of justice is not without cost: Rooster, LaBoeuf, and Mattie are ambushed by Cheney and his new gang, and they almost lose their lives.

 

THE GOOD

Everything about this book is good.  The end.

But seriously, there is so much to like about this book.  First, it’s mercifully short.  Too many Westerns bloat up with extra information, which is why they have the reputation for being slow (*cough*LonesomeDove*cough*).  That doesn’t make long books bad, but Charles Portis knew what he was doing when he parsed True Grit down to a merciful 200 pages.  The plot moves just fast enough to keep you interested, but it stays slow enough that you don’t feel cheated.

I totally see why lots of readers compare Charles Portis to Cormac McCarthy, another very famous author who wrote No Country for Old Men and The Road.  You know, just two of the most famous Westerns of the last 20 years, nothing major.  Anyway, both authors write in a very postmodern style, which is a fancy way of saying that they only use as many words as they need to get the point across.  Jane Eyre, this ain’t.  However, like McCarthy, Portis crams meaning in to each and every sentence he writes.  Here’s a good example:

“Nobody loved to gad about on a prancing steed more than Papa. I have never been very fond of horses myself although I believe I was accounted a good enough rider in my youth. I never was afraid of animals. I remember once I rode a mean goat through a plum thicket on a dare.”

From that one sentence, we learn so much about Mattie.  We know that she idolized her father as only a daughter would.  She’s also naive about her own skill, since she thinks riding a goat will make her a decent enough horsewoman to survive weeks of hard riding in Indian Territory.  We also know that Mattie won’t back down from any challenge, even if its a patently ridiculous dare. She’s a character that jumps off the page, and those are rare finds.

And that’s where True Grit manages to stand out above the rest: its characters.  Even though the writing style is sparse, Portis still gives you enough information that you really feel like you know Mattie, Rooster, LaBoeuf, and even Tom Cheney.  They seem real, and when you finish the book, you’re sad that their story is over and you’ll never see them again.

I also loved this book for a silly reason: I live in Arkansas.  I know exactly where all of the places Portis mentions are, and I’ve driven down the same street that Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf ride out on.  It’s a story that’s close to home, and that makes it just a little bit more special.

(You should come to Arkansas.  We all wear shoes and are really, really nice.)

 

THE BAD

So, even though I love this book with my whole heart, it does have a few minor issues.  The first is the pacing—a full half of the book is spent getting ready to go find Tom Cheney.  The build-up begins to get tedious, but thankfully the actual hunt for Cheney makes up for it.  This is part of the issue with having a character-driven book, but it is clunky.  Right about the time Mattie was in her second negotiation with Cogburn, I started to get bored.  Thankfully, Mattie hurls herself and Little Blackie into the Arkansas River a few pages later, which kinda solved the “I was bored” problem.

My other quip is that when the book does get exciting, it can be hard to follow.  This is partly a fault of its sparse writing style, but it does get hard to keep track of why Ned Pepper is leaving Mattie with Tom Cheney and who-shoots-who in the hideout conflict.  A little more detail would have been helpful, but in the end, it doesn’t take away from the readability of the book.

 

THE UGLY

This isn’t even a valid criticism, but the ending was so sad!  I wanted Mattie to live happily ever after because I love her so much, but instead, she seems really lonely.  After the adventure is over and Mattie has grown up, Mattie defends the fact that she’s never married.  While that’s a really nice feminist touch, she’s still left at home taking care of her mother while her siblings go off and have full lives.  It just strikes me as a little tragic, but not in a bad way.  It’s just…wonderfully sad.

 

 Ratings

Read True Grit If:

You enjoy Westerns

You think super spunky fourteen-year-old girls are awesome

You want a short read that holds your attention

Skip True Grit If:

You like lots of imagery and prefer detail over dialogue

Have YA fatigue and prefer older narrators

You aren’t a fan of sad (but still amazing) endings




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