The Author: Charles Portis
How I Found It: I saw the 2010 film version and became curious about the source material.
The Review: It's funny to read this so soon after The Ruby in the Smoke. Mattie and Sally would get on well, I think. They're both girls ahead of their time, with good heads for numbers. They're both out to avenge their fathers' blood, despite their ages (Mattie's 14, Sally's 16). They both face down their fathers' killers, pistols in hand, with unflinching bravery. They've both got some pretty firm ideas on men and marriage, and a certain kind of nerve. In the great pantheon of kickass young heroines, I'm sure that Mattie and Sally are getting on like a house on fire.
"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 that it did not happen every day." (11)
Ain't that the truth? Mattie Ross is out to find Tom Chaney, the coward who shot and killed her father and robbed him of his mare and two gold pieces. In Fort Smith, Arkansas, she is told that Reuben "Rooster" Cogburn is the meanest marshal around, pitiless but also a slightly pistol-happy drunkard. Before long, an arrogant Texas ranger named LaBoeuf has showed up, telling Mattie that he is looking to apprehend Chaney as well. Mattie is determined to punish Chaney for his crime and does not want LaBoeuf interfering, but she is left with little choice. Soon, she, Rooster, and LaBoeuf are pursuing Chaney, who has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper's gang, through the Indian Territory.
Dialogue. I've said it before and I will say it until the end of time: dialogue makes or breaks a story for me. If I can't hear a person actually saying something, I lose faith in the story's ability to be realistic. On the other hand, if I can hear it perfectly in my head, I'll likely end up really enjoying the book. Maybe it was because the 2010 film version hewed so close to the book's dialogue, but I could really hear it, even if Portis rarely indicated who was speaking, even when the conversations went on for pages. Each character had a very distinct voice and even a sense of humor. A gem I really loved:
[When we first meet Rooster, he is being questioned by a prosecutor about his role in the death of several criminals.]Goudy: The gun was pulled and ready in your hand?Cogburn: Yes sir.Goudy: Loaded and cocked?Cogburn: If it ain't loaded and cocked it will not shoot.Goudy: Just answer my questions if you please.Cogburn: That one does not make any sense. (53)
Not to mention that Rooster and LaBoeuf were comedy gold. LaBoeuf's arrogance about his role as a Texas Ranger is priceless. This exchange was a favorite of mine:
LaBoeuf said, "I reckon I must have the wrong man. Do you let little girls hooraw you, Cogburn?"Humor, as evidenced in the two examples above, wasn't something I was really expecting, even though I'd laughed at the film, and it came as a pleasant surprise. Not to pun on the title, but the story is often gritty--I've not read many other books where someone has their fingers chopped off and then gets stabbed in short order--and the moments of humor were welcome and often had me laughing out loud.
Rooster turned his cold right eye on the Texan. "Did you just say hooraw?"
"Hooraw," said LaBoeuf. "That was the word."
"Maybe you would like to see some real hoorawing." (95)
The characters were very distinctive and I wanted to see them succeed. I've already waxed a bit about Mattie, but she's definitely one to remember, whether as a young girl or as the adult narrating the tale. She's determined, prickly, and maybe childish at times, but certainly braver than most adults, witnessing violence without flinching and haggling successfully with a horse trader who makes every effort to rook her. Cogburn is, of course, a drunk and morally ambiguous, but he respects Mattie as the one paying him and even shows some affection for her once or twice, making him not such a bad guy. LaBoeuf is just hilarious, as I said above, going on about lapping water from hoofprints and other tactics of the Texas Rangers.
I'm surprised as ever at the pacing, but in the end, I think it worked well. When I saw the 2010 film, I was surprised at how Chaney and the gang didn't really come in until maybe half an hour to the end. Reading the book, it takes half the novel to settle affairs in Fort Smith and actually go on the road to find Chaney. In the end, though, it's more about Mattie than the hunt for Chaney. We're meant to see that this is a girl ahead of her time, a girl who's the exact opposite of both her parents: she's proactive and has business sense, the opposite of her mother, prostrate with grief and hardly able to spell 'cat,' but also the opposite of her father, a pushover whose kindness leads to his death.
The 2010 film (I've yet to see the John Wayne version--sacrilege, I know) stuck very close to the book in terms of dialogue and characterizations, and only added a scene or two extra. Hailee Steinfeld is absolutely perfect as Mattie, and it's duly impressive for being her first performance (I hold firm about her being robbed of the Oscar). Matt Damon managed to project LaBoeuf's cockiness exceedingly well, just as he should have. Jeff Bridges mumbles a bit too much as Cogburn, but he embodied the morally ambiguous, frequently drunk Cogburn really nicely. His lines led to the biggest laughs (the cornbread scene is a standout).
Overall, the book is well-plotted, well-characterized, and well-paced, and I'm definitely glad to have read an apparent classic of American literature, with a heroine who deserves to be widely known. I think this is a great pick for high schoolers and adults alike, a good, action-filled summer read.