True Grit, Old School

Review of True Grit by Charles Portis


Mattie Ross is no ordinary fourteen-year-old. She has a head for figures, good business sense, excellent bargaining skills, and a stubborn streak a mile wide. Oh, and she’s looking for the guy who shot her pa.  See, her dad was gunned down in cold blood by a low-down no-account good-for-nothing by the name of Tom Chaney, and Mattie’s dead set on making sure he pays for his crime. Unfortunately, Tom Chaney fled into Indian Territory and joined up with a notorious gang of thieves headed by notorious outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper, and the local law is none too eager to follow after Chaney. Fortunately, Mattie knows just the man to hunt Chaney down and bring him back—dead or alive. That man is Rooster Cogburn, a portly, one-eyed, middle-aged U.S. Marshal with a drinking habit, a dark past, and a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. But Rooster and Mattie aren’t the only ones looking for Chaney; there’s a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBeouf (pronounced La Beef) who’s mighty eager to get his hands on the outlaw . . . and the reward money being offered yet another murder perpetrated by Chaney. As Mattie and Rooster try to find Chaney and bring him to account for the murder of Mattie’s father, Mattie learns the hard way that vengeance can be very, very costly.

This book, the second of Portis’s four novels, has been in print pretty much continuously since it was first published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post in 1968 and then in novel form that same year. It started out as a bestseller (albeit a questionable one), and probably received a significant boost from the 1969 film adaptation starring John Wayne (which earned sixty-two-year-old Wayne his first and only Oscar).  However, in the past few decades, it seemed to have dropped off the literary radar until the Coen Brothers’ critically acclaimed and commercially successfully 2010 adaptation (starring Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld) brought it back to national spotlight and triggered another appearance on the bestseller list.

The story is narrated by Mattie in a voice that is surprisingly believable for a fourteen-year-old girl (which Mattie was at the time the events took place) and for a, well, rather crochety old spinster (which Mattie is when she recalls the events and transcribes her adventures)—though I admit the punctuation (the distaste for commas and the excessive use of quotations) has, to my mind, a more youthful feel, and is thus arguably less consistent with the writing of a stodgy old maid. Then again, it is not at all clear that Mattie develops—emotionally or socially—beyond her fourteen-year-old self, so perhaps the style is merely Portis’s way of alluding to her rather stunted development. Either way, the writing itself is simple but not ignorant; it is, in fact, straightforward and direct as Mattie is herself.

The title of the book is a reference to the quality Mattie sees and admires in Rooster—the quality that convinces her he is the man for the job. But it applies equally to Mattie herself, who, though young and inexperienced, has every bit as much grit as the tough old marshal.  Mattie has often been compared to Huckleberry Finn, but, as more than one writer has noticed (including the author of the afterword in the 2010 movie tie-in edition), her dogged determination and singularity of purpose are more reminiscent of Captain Ahab.

Mattie’s quest for vengeance (or ‘justice’, if we’re being charitable) raises some interesting questions. Throughout the course of the novel, Mattie refers more than once to her religious upbringing and strong moral beliefs. She refuses to drink alcohol, saying “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.” (p. 63) In a short meditation on the principle of sowing and reaping, she notes, “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.” (p. 40) She quotes the Bible, chapter and verse, on more than one occasion, and even offers a surprising (and concise) defense of the doctrine of Election:

I confess it is a hard doctrine, running contrary to our earthly ideas of fair play, but I can see no way around it. Read […] II Timothy 1:9,10. Also I Peter 1:2,9,10 and Romans 11:7. There you have it. It was good enough for Paul and Silas and it is good enough for me. It is good enough for you too. (p. 115)

Still, for all her bible thumping and “moral” behavior, there does not appear to be much evidence of grace in her life. Her quest for Chaney, though in her eyes merely the pursuit of justice, is vengeance, plain and simple. Sure, she wants to bring him back so the law can punish him for his crime. But if she can’t, she’ll shoot him where he stands. And when La Beouf tries to convince her that it’s all the same whether Chaney stands trial for her father’s murder or for the murder of another man, Mattie is adamant that Chaney be punished—and know he is being punished—for killing her father. Her passion is not for justice, but for revenge. She is perfectly willing to let other, more culpable individuals go free; her only concern is Chaney. The others have not wronged her personally, so she doesn’t much care one way or another whether they are brought to justice. But Chaney has wronged her family, so Chaney must pay. Even when Mattie experiences the high cost of vengeance, she remains utterly convinced that she did the right thing. Personal forgiveness is never even mentioned as a possibility. She speaks about the grace of God, but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the way she lives her life.

In a sense, Mattie is a cautionary tale for Christians. Good doctrine is vitally important, but if what we believe doesn’t change us, something has gone horribly wrong. Our beliefs should not be sundered from our actions; our heart should not be untouched by the operation of our minds.  We testify about our God and His gospel not only by what we say and what we know but by what we do. This means we strive to live holy lives honoring to God; it also means we love our neighbors… and our enemies.  We are not prohibited from seeking justice; after all, we serve a just God. But we should still hope and pray for the redemption off those who’ve sinned against us. We are called to show love and forgiveness to those who wrong us. When we do, it is a picture of the gospel. After all, we were once enemies of God, and Christ forgave us and loved us enough to die for us on the cross, bearing the punishment we deserved. And nothing anyone does to us can ever compare to what we have done to God.

The answer is not, as many today suggest, to compromise truth in order to advance the cause of love. Our God is no less true than He is loving and merciful. But even as we have discussions about important topics like election, sanctification, baptism, gender roles, Communion, or even justification by faith and the inerrancy of Scripture (and we should discuss these things), we must remember that true faith in the gospel is transformative. If we spout off about the doctrines of grace and yet live a life devoid of grace, the watching world will notice and will have reason to doubt the truth of our message.  But if we marry good doctrine with real heart change, God is glorified and the power of the gospel is displayed for all to see.

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