I picked up this book for a couple of quid and usually wouldn’t have bothered as I’ve seen the movie version of it. By the movie version I mean the awesome 1969 John Wayne movie. But hearing that the Coen Brothers had done a remake I was curious to see if there was more to the book and whether the Wayne version had changed and Hollywoodized the story.
It turns out it hadn’t really.
It’s narrated by Mattie Ross, an aging old maid who recounts the story from her youth of her attempt to find justice for the murder of her father and bring his killer, Chaney to justice. In the pursuit of this man Mattie hires a tough deputy marshal, the one-eyed Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, and reluctantly has to team up with LaBouef, a swaggering, cocky Texas Ranger who is after Chaney for the reward placed on him for an earlier crime.
They set out after Chaney and the gang he’s thrown in with, and Mattie begins to have doubts about the men she’s joined forces with, especially Cogburn who’s belligerence and drinking irks the rather straight-laced Christian girl, who tires of his bragging and debates whether he’s as good and tough as he says he is. Will they catch Chaney and deliver him to justice, and does Rooster really have “grit”?
When I said the film hasn’t changed much that shouldn’t be taken as a criticism as I love the Wayne movie, and the only real change comes from the Duke himself who makes Cogburn more endearing and charismatic in the movie.
Although I must admit I warmed to the character in the book too, although whether this is held over affection from the movie I couldn’t say. He was easily the character I liked the most, and I loved his roguish, stubborn ways.
Mattie is a good choice as narrator, and Portis writes well, having her wander off on tangents and little political rants, and throughout her rather stuck up, pious attitudes come through. In a way this serves to make Cogburn and LaBouef the better characters, the more this irritating preachy woman tells us of their flaws and sins, the more I found myself developing more affection for them.
But I don’t want to be too harsh on Mattie as she’s not all bad as a character and she shows integrity and intelligence throughout, and also quite a lot of bravery. She’s a very strong female role in a genre where the fairer sex are often marginalized.
Mainly her attitudes serve to highlight the changing of times, her religion and civilized ways representing the modern era moving in and forcing out the anarchic, free spirited world of the Wild West out of existence. Cogburn is a dinosaur in some ways, a relic of that era and the book shows that his fast shooting ways which had formerly been the norm are quickly becoming viewed in a different light by society.
This point is even clearer in the closing stages of the book, where Mattie sums up what became of the major players since the events of the book. Frank James, the notorious outlaw appears, now making money in a “Wild West” show, celebrating a fictionalized version of America’s formative years.
Portis writes all his characters well and the novel whips along at quite a good pace, he’s also blessed with a knack for sly wit, whether in Mattie’s observations of Rooster and LaBouef’s behaviour or even more subtly when it highlights our narrator’s own flaws and foibles.
The action sequences are well handled, with a real sense of urgency and chaotic peril, but never overly romanticized, the only truly amazing moment being the final shootout where Rooster proves that he has plenty of grit and LaBouef delivers on his own bragging.
Verdict: A delightful quick read, extremely well written with realistic characters and a nice humorous side throughout. A thoroughly entertaining book. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.