My edition of ‘True Grit’ has a picture of a smoking gun on the cover, but no images of any of the action or characters, certainly no kind of introduction to the narrator who would so charm me for the 200 or so pages of the novel. Maybe I would have been better off with the original cover version, which shows a dowdily dressed dour-faced girl holding a horse by the bridal and a gun by the barrel. In retrospect though, I think not. The precious, powerful and very funny heroine of ‘True Grit’ is a new favourite literary protagonist and neither covers do her any kind of justice. (For the record, the UK posters for the 2010 film adaptation either pushe her to background or abandon her entirely for a still of Jeff Bridges, which may have helped sell the picture, but do nothing to convey the freshness of the source-text’s viewpoint and protagonist).
The preamble is all to say that my favourite thing about the book was the presence of young Maggie, who brought life, humour, pathos and what felt like real originality to a genre I’m increasingly growing to know and love.
The novel opens with Maggie explaining her quest and giving us a taste of her personality:
‘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 South, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horses and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.’
In order to get the very direct revenge she seeks, Maggie decides to recruit Rooster, a man of ‘true grit.’ We first encounter this paragon in court, where he is challenged on his habit of prematurely shooting suspects rather than following due process. There is no real doubt about the legality of his actions, making him the perfect companion for Maggie in her search for Wild West justice. Naturally, she is coming along too because nothing makes for a good pairing like a trigger-happy US marshal and a precocious young teenager. Actually it’s more than a pair because there is also an (according to Maggie) arrogant and smug Texas Ranger after their man.
Despite the ever-present threat of violence, the book contains a charming amount of bickering as each of the revenge party is convinced they have the most practical plans and the most reasonable aims. With the same deadpan humour and equally dramatic set-pieces (though fitted into a much shorter narrative) ‘True Grit’ reminded me of the fabulous ‘Lonesome Dove’ while its brusk story-telling had echoes of ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones’. It is a true Western classic and one made even more special by its indomitable and unexpected heroine.