In the first line of True Grit, Charles Portis introduces the reader to the engaging voice of Mattie Ross, narrating from old age the great adventure of her life: "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."
In language straightforward but strongly her own, full of feeling but unsentimental, she goes on to relate the tale of her search for her father's murderer, "a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney," during a hard winter across the "Choctaw Nation" in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. To aid her in her quest, she seeks a man with a quality she calls "true grit" and thinks she finds him in Rooster Cogburn, a shabby and overweight but affable federal marshal. Also seeking Chaney, for other crimes, is LaBoeuf, a proud, young Texas Ranger, who enters into a sometimes uneasy partnership with the pair.
As the three track the killer across the still-untamed territory, they find themselves challenged by the landscape and its natural perils, by the deadly enemies they face, and ultimately by one another and their own fears.
Portis vividly recreates the roughness of an America that is barely a hundred years old and still deciding what kind of country it will be. A portrait of a specific time, it nevertheless exudes a mythic timelessness. In his unforgettable characters, he explores the meaning of friendship, courage, and fidelity to a moral code. Even as he plumbs these broad themes, the action never flags and the tale bristles with humor.
In the near half-century since it was first published, readers of all ages—including Portis's fellow writers, who admire the craft as much as the rousing story—have come to treasure it as a classic, not just of the Western genre but in all of American literature.
Raised on a farm in Yell County, Arkansas, Mattie is resolute and resourceful in seeking justice for the murder of her father. Headstrong, independent, and witty, Mattie—even at fourteen—insists on eventually facing down Tom Chaney herself, carrying her father's "Colt's dragoon" to kill him even if the law would fail to do so.
Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn
A former Confederate soldier, Rooster has become a federal marshal who patrols the Indian Territory. Prone to drinking bouts and the administration of his own brand of justice that some consider "pitiless," he is employed by Mattie to track down her father's murderer.
Proud, handsome, and something of a dandy in his "clanking" spurs, the Texas Ranger is seeking Tom Chaney for the murder of a Texas state senator. He clashes with Rooster over their differing approaches to the pursuit and suffers Rooster's antipathy toward the Rangers.
An itinerant hired man on Frank Ross's farm, Chaney kills and robs his employer on a trip to Fort Smith to buy horses and then flees to the Indian Territory. He is distinguished by a black mark on his cheek, which he received after a man shot him in the face, lodging gunpowder under his skin.
Lucky Ned Pepper
Long sought by Rooster and earlier wounded by him in the lip, Pepper heads a band of outlaws, which Tom Chaney joins after killing Frank Ross.
The spirited pony carries Mattie, who calls him her "chum," over the Winding Stair Mountains on the quest to find Tom Chaney and eventually plays a crucial role in her very survival.
"We loped across open prairies and climbed wooded limestone hills and made our way through brushy bottoms and icy streams. Much of the snow melted under the sun but as the long shadows of dusk descended in all their purple loveliness, the temperature did likewise. We were very warm from our exertions and the chill night air felt good at first, but then it became uncomfortable as we slowed our pace."
—Mattie Ross in True Grit