In the autumn of 1968, I was in my last year at university and attempting to make sense of a world that seemed to be falling apart. Under the influence of Brecht-‘a smooth forehead betokens a hard heart’ even reading for pleasure was serious business and I ploughed my way through heavy German volumes, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.
And then, probably in an organic rebellion, my appendix burst. For two weeks, I had a room to myself in a hospital that was as clean and peaceful as a luxury hotel. My father drove through the night to get there, bringing with him his version of flowers and fruit: an L. L. Bean bag full of books. During my childhood illnesses, he would read to me one of the more obscure volumes by Dickens. Relieved as I was by his presence, I hesitated before showing signs of life. I wasn’t ready for a picaresque Dickens, but when my eyes were still shut, he began to read.
‘People do not give it credence that a 14-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 14 years of age when a coward going by the name of Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.’
I opened my eyes. This was not Dickens. In fact, it was the opening paragraph of True Grit, a novel by Charles Portis about a pious, opinionated, headstrong girl who is sent by her grieving mother to collect the body of her dead father. In town, Mattie Ross looks for somebody to help her find her father’s killer. She chooses Rooster Cogburn, a fat, one-eyed, drunken veteran of the Confederate army, a tough and pitiless marshal ‘who loves to pull a cork’.
The unlikely duo is eventually joined by a Texas Ranger called LaBoeuf, who’s been chasing Chaney for shooting a Texas state senator in a dispute over a bird dog. The men are motivated more by money than justice and both resent having Mattie along on the manhunt, until she proves herself to be as tough-and a lot smarter than any gunslinger.
By page 10, my father and I were both so crazy about the book that we resented interruptions from doctors and nurses. Greedy readers, we had to make a deal: when visiting hours were over, neither one was allowed to read ahead. By the time I was upright, Mattie Ross had eclipsed Huck and Scout as my favourite character in fiction.
For years, I carried the book around with me, opening it whenever I needed moral certainty with a dose of humour. Long after it was loaned and lost, Mattie’s voice lived in my head. ‘You must pay for everything in this world, one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.’ ‘I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains,’ she tells the drunken Rooster.
I love her Old Testament morality, her financial shrewdness-only at the end do you learn that she becomes a small-town banker: ‘It is true that I love my church and my bank. What is wrong with that?’-and her sense of legal justice. LaBoeuf wants to capture Chaney and have him tried in Texas where there’s a bounty, but Mattie refuses: ‘I want Chaney to pay for killing my father and not some Texas bird dog.’
Although John Wayne won his only Oscar for playing Rooster, I never saw the film. When a book is everything to you, it’s too risky to see somebody else’s version of it. I’m only tempted by the new movie because I have faith in the Coen brothers. But I’ll read the book again first. After Shakespeare and the Bible, it’s my Desert Island book. What more can I say?