Million-selling author Caroline Lawrence writes detective stories with the double aim of entertaining children and teaching them. Her passion for plotting combined with historical accuracy means her history mystery stories are beloved of children and teachers alike. In 2009, Caroline won the Classical Association Prize for her Roman Mysteries series. She has recently embarked on a new time and place: Nevada in the early 1860s. She says: 'I want to know everything about the past, especially the exciting and suprising things. Also the sounds, smells, sights and tastes. I essentially write historical novels because nobody has invented a time machine. And I write for kids because 11 is my inner age.' Here Caroline writes about Charles Portis's True Grit.
Caroline Lawrence on True Grit by Charles Portis
Published in 1968, True Grit is an American masterpiece that ranks with Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, though I prefer it to either of those books.
I came to the book fairly late, around 2005, when I was toying with the idea of writing a children's history-mystery series set in the American West. To be accurate, the book came to me; it was a gift from my librarian friend Penny. Our tastes rarely converge, but in this case she hit the bull's-eye.
Like many others before me, I fell passionately in love with True Grit. It has everything: a great protagonist, a captivating cast of characters, dense period detail and crisp plotting. The first line is great. So is the last line. So is every line in between. And so is the title, a double reference to the fourteen-year-old heroine and her middle-aged sidekick.
Here is what happens.
In December 1878, a girl from Arkansas hires an overweight, half-blind, forty-year-old Marshal to help her avenge her father's cold-blooded murder. They pick up a smug Texas Ranger along the way and the three of them ride deep into Choctaw Nation, squabbling as they go.
Mattie Ross - deadpan, devout and determined - is one of the great heroines of any period. She rarely reveals her feelings, reserving her passion for rants about politics or religion. In the intensely frightening or emotional moments, she shows rather than tells. The story is ostensibly written by unmarried Mattie twenty-five years after the fact, and part of the fun of reading True Grit is trying to disentangle the voice of the 14-year-old adventuress from the voice of the 40-year-old spinster, while looking for traces of the author, a 35-year-old ex-Marine from Arkansas who once broke a reporter's arm in an arm-wrestling match.
It can't be done.
Charles Portis is utterly invisible. He has been called a 'historical ventriloquist' and at first reading it does indeed seem that the spirit of a Presbyterian spinster possessed him during the writing of this. But the plotting is too tight, the set-ups and pay-offs too elegant, the world too dense and well researched. As with any masterpiece, the writing seems effortless.
One of the most satisfying elements of the book is the language, not just Mattie's own narrative voice, but the courtroom transcripts, the last words spoken by condemned men, and Rooster's rambling philosophizing.
I would love to know what Portis was reading in the run-up to this. He is notoriously shy of reporters, but from a 2001 interview I would guess that many of the authentic-sounding phrases were ones he heard growing up in rural Arkansas in the 1950s and 60s. At that time, some of the residents would still remember stories told by grandparents who fought in the Civil War.
As a rookie reporter, Portis had the courthouse beat, dropping by the sheriff's office, the jail and the courtroom of a 'weird judge'. Sometimes it was his job to summarize reports sent in from rural 'stringers' (local reporters).
'My job,' he told Roy Reed in 2001, 'was to edit out all the life and charm from these homely reports. Some fine old country expression, or a nice turn of phrase...'
Portis must also have absorbed bons mots from his family members: his Methodist minister grandfather, clever mother and politically-minded father. 'The Portises were talkers rather than readers or writers. A lot of cigar smoke and laughing when my father and his brothers got together. Long anecdotes. The spoken word.'
'Nothing is too long or too short either,' writes Mattie at one point in the story, 'if you have a true and interesting tale and what I call a "graphic" writing style combined with educational aims.' One of the meanings of 'graphic' is to give a vivid picture with explicit detail. This book does that in spades.
True Grit has been Hollywoodized twice. Both movie versions are good, but each has its flaws and the audiobook is far better than either. American author Donna Tartt, who counts this as one of her favourite books, captures Mattie Ross's voice perfectly.
This is a book to return to yearly. To listen to on audio. To have permanently on the Kindle app of your iPhone. It is that rare thing, a story that becomes richer every time you read it while remaining just as funny and admirable. There is nothing else like it anywhere. It will appeal as much to a nine-year-old girl as it will to a grandfather ten times that age.
This funny, exciting, poignant book was what ultimately decided me on my current project. That is why I dedicated the first of my aforementioned western historical novels to the above-mentioned Penny, who 'started me on this dusty trail when she gave me a copy of True Grit by Charles Portis'.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]