I’m mad about Westerns. I grew up watching them on BBC2 (The River of No Return and High Noon were particular favourites), studied the films of John Ford as part of my degree (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Genius), am a giant fan of Tombstone and cried when Deadwood was cancelled (thank god for Justified). So I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only seen Jeff Bridges’ turn as the legendary Rooster Cogburn, especially as my mum tells me the John Wayne movie is far better. Anyway, I started this book prepared to fall in love, and fall in love I did.
The narrator is Mattie Ross, who, as a self-confessed ‘cranky old maid’, tells the tale of an adventure she had as a headstrong 14 year old in late 19th century Arkansas. When her father is murdered, local law enforcement show no interest in catching the criminal and Mattie has no alternative but to find a man for the job, a man with ‘true grit’. That man is Rooster Cogburn, a tough US Marshall. The unlikely pair, plus a Texas Ranger, set off into Indian territory on a quest to track down the killer.
The people living in this harsh, wintry world of mass hangings and train hold-ups are lightly but convincingly drawn – from Mattie and Rooster themselves to minor characters such as the Chinese shop owner (and closest thing Cogburn has to a friend) or Mattie’s family lawyer. By the time of the showdown between a gang of outlaws and our makeshift posse, you care so very deeply about whether Mattie will avenge her father, and indeed if she will survive at all.
While the headstrong Mattie addresses the reader in a dispassionate, matter of fact and often very funny manner, there is a world of unspoken emotion within the telling of her tale. Her love for her father and gratitude to Cogburn come across, despite her deliberate eschewing of sentimentality or weakness. She is quick to point out others’ failings (her exchange with the Texas Ranger on their first meeting is particularly charming), and expects people to be lazy, greedy, cowardly and selfish. Rooster is one of the few she misjudges, although it can be up to you to decide whether he is motivated by materialism or a sense of affection and responsibility for the impossible girl who has hired him.
The only failing of the book is that it’s just 215 pages long. I wanted more!