True Grit by Charles Portis

True GritTrue Grit is a great comic Western, a genre that does not usually include a lot of comedy.  One of the problems I have with Westerns is that they tend to take themselves too seriously.  You might say that there is not much to laugh about in the lawless brutality of the Old West, but there must have occasionally been some funny characters and comic relief.

Mattie Ross is one of those people who takes herself rather seriously, but then she is on a serious mission—to avenge the murder of her father.  No one else in her family can or will undertake the task, but 14-year-old Mattie is more than up to it.  She hires the toughest US marshall she can find—battle-scarred, one-eyed Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn—and together they head for the Indian territory, where Tom Cheney, her father’s murderer, is said to be hiding out.

Crusty old Marshall Cogburn is not happy about having a “kid” along (and a girl at that) and neither is his new sidekick LaBouef of the Texas Rangers, who is on a mission of his own to catch the same man, wanted for the shooting of a Texas senator.  LaBouef and Cogburn try every trick they can think of to shake Mattie off their trail, but she is even more doggedly determined than they are.  Finally, they reluctantly agree to take her along.

Mattie Ross is a tough character, but she recites Scripture and aphorisms like a school marm and turns up her nose at the men’s drinking and uncouth behavior.  However, she is all heart and incredibly brave, though her inability to handle her father’s horse pistol finally lands her in serious trouble.

LaBouef turns out to be nearly as much trouble for Cogburn as Mattie is.  He’s conceited, full of self-importance, and packs a big rifle that blows away whatever game he tries to shoot with it.  Still, Rooster later has good reason to thank LaBouef’s excellent long-range marksmanship.

The action moves swiftly, and there is never a dull moment.  The posse discovers that Chaney has joined up with “Lucky” Ned Pepper, whom Cogburn has tried unsuccessfully to kill on several occasions.  There is a fine line between the lawman and the outlaw, and there is a sense of grudging respect between them.  The climactic battle between Ned and Rooster is one of the highlights of the novel.

The original movie with John Wayne and Kim Darby is one of my favorites.  I have not seen the remake, but I hear it is good.  However, don’t miss reading the novel; it’s got all the great scenes from the original movie but with more insight into the characters.

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