People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.

This was possibly my favorite book of the year to date, though I didn’t exactly read it. I listened to it on CD, as read by Donna Tartt, whose inflections and accent were a perfect match for the novel’s deadpan humor. The story is simple: teenage Mattie hires the meanest man she can find, eccentric US Marshal Rooster Cogburn, to track down her father’s killer. It’s the way it’s told, the turns of phrase, the cleverly layered time frame, the fantastic characterization, the descent into over-the-top bizarreness at the climax, and most of all Mattie’s voice, which make it a unique and perfect little novel.

I didn’t realize until I started listening that this was a comparatively recent book, but it was written in 1968 and is completely satisfying both as a Western and as a parody of one. It’s narrated many years after the events by Mattie, who has become an elderly crank with weird obsessions about cats (works of the Devil) and politics (hilarious even though I had never heard of half the politicians she references, and her random digressions were one of the best parts.

Donna Tartt’s afterward tells how her entire family became obsessed with the book. I can see why. After listening to it on tape, I promptly bought a copy to give to my father.

I saw the recent movie, but was disappointed. The dialogue, so hilarious in the book, is mumbled and hard to understand. It left out some of my favorite scenes, like when Rooster Cogburn serves a writ on a rat, and others didn’t come across as well in the movie as they did in the book. Inevitably, too, it lost most of Mattie’s narration, and that was the main thing that makes the book special.

True Grit


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