Jake Cline: The Last Book I Loved, True Grit

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When I grow up, I want to be Mattie Ross. Of course, a legion of realities stands between me and this goal, chief among them:

• At 38, I am biologically and, I’d like to think, emotionally mature, which places me squarely among the realm of grown-ups.

• Mattie Ross was born in the 1850s and likely died no later than 1947.¹

• Mattie Ross is a girl.

• Mattie Ross is not a real person.²

All that aside, I still want to be Mattie Ross. I want to say things such as this and mean it: “I have never been one to flinch or crawfish when faced with an unpleasant task.” And such as this: “I don’t care a thing in the world about guns. If I did, I would have one that worked.” And finally, this: “But I had not the strength to bandy words with a drunkard. What have you done when you have bested a fool?”

As imagined by Charles Portis in his 1968 Western True Grit, Mattie Ross possesses many of the traits that I admire in other people, and only occasionally discover within myself. She’s boundlessly determined, whether traveling into Indian territory to bring justice down on the man who killed her father or haggling with a horse trader whom she convinces to sell her an animal for $18 that only the day before she sold to him for $20. Stricken with guilt, I probably would have paid the man $25, plus tip. Hoping not to have to deal with her again, the trader asks Mattie, “Tell me this, do you entertain plans of ever leaving this city?” Our transaction would have ended with him telling me, “Come back soon.”

Mattie, the novel’s narrator, also appears to be unafraid of death, which she regards as a fool to be suffered like any other. More impressive, she manages to keep her head even when experiencing great physical pain. Consider the episode near the book’s end, when Mattie is thrown backwards after firing a pistol — a kill shot, no less — at an assailant and becomes stuck in a hole above an underground cavern, her legs dangling several feet above the floor. “I was caught like a cork in a bottle!” she says, not without a good deal of wonder.

Mattie searches for something to stuff in the hole with her, hoping to ward off a fall to the cavern floor and further injury to her broken right arm. She spots “the corner of a man’s blue cotton shirt” and pulls it toward her with her left hand and the aid of a stick.

“Suddenly I jerked my hand away as though from a hot stove,” she notes. “The something was the corpse of a man! Or more properly, a skeleton. He was wearing the shirt. I did nothing for a minute, so frightful and astonishing was the discovery. I could see a good part of the remains, the head with patches of bright orange hair showing under a piece of rotted black hat, one shirtsleeved arm and that portion of the trunk from about the waist upwards. The shirt was buttoned in two or three places near the neck.

“I soon recovered my wits. I am falling. I need that shirt. These thoughts bore upon me with urgency. I had no stomach for the task ahead but there was nothing else to be done in my desperate circumstances. My plan was to give the shirt a smart jerk in hopes of tearing it free from the skeleton. I will have that shirt!

Not only does Mattie press on, her situation offering her but one option — survive, damn it — she does so only after taking stock of the object before her. Hell, she’s even able to admire its details — the orangeness of the hair, the buttons on the shirt. And this she does without her wits?

Of course, Mattie is not perfect; she can come off as hectoring and didactic. She thinks nothing of interrupting her own narrative to start — and win — hypothetical arguments with hypothetical people. The result is unintended hilarity, though the reader doesn’t quite laugh at or with Mattie’s naive self-righteousness, but around it and from a safe distance. “I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful,” she says. “Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious ‘claptrap.’ My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8:26-33.”

Another thing about Mattie is that she’s prone to putting quotes around words and phrases she finds disdainful: “claptrap,” “smarty,” “house of correction.” She aims to waste nothing, not even words. Put another way, and to coin a phrase she’d probably hate, the girl has as much use for clichés as a horse does for a sleeping bag.

Sometimes, though, Mattie’s sanctimony produces some killer metaphors, however unintentionally. In perhaps the novel’s most-quoted line, the girl turns down a shot of whiskey with deadpan disgust: “I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains.”

Stepping away from the pages of True Grit, Mattie seems less a flesh-and-blood character than an archetype:  She’s a headstrong, sharp-tongued protagonist bent on revenge. She believes nothing is impossible and every wrong can be made right. She overcomes “impossible odds.” She does what “has to be done.” She always “gets her man.”

Yet within those same taut, finely tuned pages, Mattie is nothing if not original, and not just because she’s a 14-year-old girl with the sand to hunt down a cold-blooded killer and to sass the ornery, possibly alcoholic, one-eyed federal marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, she hires to participate in her quest. She’s an original because Portis made her so, investing her with a voice so clear and consistent it could feed a river.

Hollywood has led the public to believe True Grit is about Cogburn; the character afforded John Wayne an iconic and Oscar-winning role. (It remains to be seen if the Coen brothers’ forthcoming remake will do the same for Jeff Bridges.) This is incorrect and unfair. Even though Mattie herself, several times in the novel, inquires about and later directly acknowledges Cogburn’s “grit,” it’s obvious she expects the marshal not to provide something she lacks but to match what she has — pound for pound and gut for gut. It’s the only kind of partnership she’ll allow.

“I don’t think about you at all when your mouth is closed,” Cogburn says to another character midway through the novel. The same could not be said of Mattie Ross, whose voice resonates long after her quest has ended and her story has been told.

On second thought, I don’t want to be Mattie Ross at all. I’d only flinch and crawfish and get in my own way.

[1] This is an educated guess. The exact years of Mattie’s birth and death are not revealed in the novel.

[2] This is debatable, though it’s not a debate I care to have with anyone.

Jake Cline is a writer and magazine editor based in South Florida.


Jake Cline is a writer and journalist based in Miami. You can follow him on Twitter at @jakeflorida. More from this author →