True Grit is a great character-driven story carried along in no small part by its charming narrator, a 14 year-old girl named Mattie Ross who without hesitation takes it upon herself to see the man who killed her father put to death. While an unlikely hero, Mattie proves every bit the moral and intellectual superior of the rest of the book’s characters, and keeps a cool head even when she’s in over it. And she’s funny! A prime example of her deadpan delivery comes right at the start. Mattie is talking to the sheriff of the town where her father was murdered, inquiring about the local marshals and who might best aid her in the capture of her father’s killer. The sheriff responds:
The meanest one is Roster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say that Quinn is about the best they have.
And Mattie replies:
Where can I find this Rooster?
Another great moment comes at the book’s end, when Mattie falls into an abandoned mine shaft filled with rattlesnakes. She finds herself wedged in between two boulders, but grits through the pain of a broken arm to try and shimmy herself free before the rattlesnakes reach her:
I renewed my effort to break free but the vigorous movement made me slip a bit farther down in the mossy hole. My thought was: This will not do.
Mattie, as must be clear by now, is kind of a badass.1 But she lacks utterly the macho bravado of typical western heroes. She’s got no swagger, she just gets things done. It’s probably useless talking about gender here, but it’s hard not to think of Maddie’s as a kind of female badassness, given her stark contrast contrast with the story’s male leads. While the marshals she teams up with, Rooster and Le Boeuf, are constantly arguing or measuring each other up, Maddie stays focused on her goal and the actions it requires. What this young girl lacks in brute strength, she makes up for with strength of character.
Even if you’ve seen the movie, True Grit remains a great, quick read. The book has less gorgeous landscapes by comparison, but even more of Mattie’s surprising, humorous, winning monologue.
If this fact isn’t clear, let me add one salient detail from the mine shaft scene. When Mattie looks down and finds the snake-filled corpse of a man, does she shriek as I would? No, she rips the corpse’s arm off and proceeds to bludgeon the snakes with it. ↩