Sure you saw the movie. But have you read the book? Horse Nation book critic Erin McCabe tells us how the words-on-a-page version stacks up.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I am a big fan of a strong female protagonist. I am also a sucker for first person narration. Luckily, both of these seem to be rather common in the Horse Fiction genre (which, if you ask me, ought to have its own section in Barnes & Noble, located right between Romance and Westerns, as close to Literature and Classics as possible). However, not so much with Westerns, which is why I sat up straight and took notice of True Grit, by Charles Portis.
If you are of a certain age and happened to see the John Wayne movie version of True Grit, I apologize. I assure you: the book is a pleasant surprise. Contrary to what John Wayne would have you believe, a woman (gasp!) is actually the main character of the story and (double gasp!) she’s actually totally competent. Which, if you saw the 2010 Coen Brothers movie version (starring Oscar-nominated Hailee Steinfeld. Oh yeah, and Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon), you already kind of know. However, if you haven’t read the book, I would like to urge you to do so at your earliest convenience. And it’s much more convenient now because the once out of print book has been re-released, thanks to the new(ish) movie.
This novel feels teensy even though it’s actually 240 pages. It’s just such a fast read. What makes the pages fly by is the no-nonsense, sassy, and hilarious narration (peppered with Bible verse references) of the strong female protagonist. Although Mattie (who is only 14 at the time of the events in the story, I might add) solicits the aid of U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn (AKA John Wayne/Jeff Bridges) to help bring her father’s murderer to justice, you get the sense that even if she didn’t hire someone, she might well have gotten the job done herself. Not only can Mattie argue with Texas Rangers, she can barter with horse traders, and handle a shotgun. Take that, John Wayne!
There is one potential problem with Mattie. Right from the get-go she claims, “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.” But here’s the great thing about first person narration: it’s unreliable! Case in point: when Mattie buys a horse named Little Blackie on which to pursue her father’s murderer, she says things like Little Blackie was “frisky and spirited but not hysterical” and that she is “very proud of my horse” and “there never lived a nobler pony.” Obviously the girl likes horses. Phew! However, I must issue a Red Pony-esque spoiler alert. Be forewarned: All does not go well for Little Blackie.
My other semi-problem with this novel is that it seems to be missing what one of my writing professors called a “second story” and what less fun teachers (who me?) have been known to call “larger significance.” Is there a message in True Grit? Certainly the story is about the ideas of revenge and justice, duty and loyalty. But mostly the story is enjoyable because it maintains such a headlong focus on plot and narrative voice, not because it has anything to really teach us. As a reader, I love feisty Mattie and get a kick out her. When Texas Ranger LaBoeuf admits that “earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick, and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt”, I can’t help but giggle when Mattie replies, “One would be as unpleasant as the other.” Ha! Take that, Matt Damon! It’s that kind of quick wit that makes the whole book entertaining and utterly worthwhile, even if it is missing a second story. And besides, there’s horse action on practically every page.