Steamboat Springs For a long time, the Western — especially the Western novel — had faded from the American imagination. Thankfully, in the past few years the genre has enjoyed some renewed interest. Maybe this signals the end of the current infatuation with melodramas about lovesick vampires and overly emotive wizards. I hope so.
When most people think about what makes a book or a movie a Western, certain images are called to mind. Usually these images involve gunplay, charging horses, a herd of cattle stampeding toward a cliff, maybe even the Alamo. These are the kind of things an audience expects. While any Western will deliver on that promise, a truly great one will be about more than just those moments.
Besides merely making a comeback, the Western has proved that it can be more than pulp. This is due largely to writers like Cormac McCarthy and filmmakers like the Coen brothers. This isn’t a recent revision of the genre though, it’s just something that many of us are only now coming to realize. The novel “True Grit,” first published in 1968 and written by Charles Portis, attempts to blur the line between popular fiction and literary fiction.
In the story, Mattie Ross, a 14-year-old girl, sets out to avenge the death of her father. After an argument about the particulars of a horse deal, Frank Ross is shot dead by a drifter named Tom Chaney. In her endeavor to track this man down, Mattie enlists the help of Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn.
Cogburn is a whiskey-soaked, malarial, one-eyed, ex-confederate soldier and road agent turned U.S. marshal. He is not the kind of man most 14-year-old girls seek the company of. But the obsessively logical and brutally plainspoken Mattie isn’t like most girls her age.
While others in the story might, Mattie never seems to fully grasp the ridiculousness of her situation. Her only real concerns seem to be that everybody, not just Chaney, be held responsible for their transgressions, be they legal, financial or moral. In this way she has something in common with Rooster. She leads with her gut and isn’t adverse to a little frontier justice. According to Mattie, “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”
Portis’s novel does everything a reader wants a Western to do. It is gritty, depraved and adventurous. It hunts down outlaws and it shoots at rattlesnakes, but all the while it is smiling at its own conventions.
In the midst of all this action a reader might miss the fact that “True Grit” is a coming-of-age story. Wipe aside the dust and blood and you’ll find a narrator who is really a reminiscing old spinster. At its core, Mattie’s story is more akin to “To Kill a Mockingbird” than “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”
“True Grit” is worth reading. This novel is much more than what can be inferred by watching the trailer for the movie adaptation. It is funny and heartbreaking, with a richness of characters that you don’t find in most page-turners.
“True Grit” is available at Epilogue Book Co. and Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Steamboat Springs.
Cody Heartz is a full-time resident of Steamboat Springs and is pursuing an master’s in creative writing.