On The Frontier, Justice Was Bought And Paid For

by | Nov 11, 2014

“People love to talk. They love to slander you if you have any substance.” -Mattie Ross

Mike Kline, my friend since freshman year at F&M, was in Portland with his family last August. Over Italian food and later over coffee at Albina Press, we spoke of President Obama’s performance in the White House, Portland’s strange ways and finally books. Mike suggested that I read True Grit by Charles Portis. He said I would enjoy it (he was correct!), and also that he is teaching the novel this fall at Shipley School in suburban Philadelphia.

Charles Portis is from Arkansas. He lives in Little Rock. His most famous heroine, Mattie Ross, is also from Arkansas, from “near Dardanelle in Yell County,” to be exact. The events of True Grit take place in 1873, but the story is recounted by Mattie as an old woman.

The novel, published in 1968, has twice been made into a Hollywood film. The first production earned John Wayne a best acting nod for the Oscar. The remake was a Coen brothers movie. Let’s have a look at young Mattie through the Coen brothers’ lens:

There’s a solid argument to be made that Mattie Ross is a feminist hero. Another way to read the book is to understand how hard it was to live on the American frontier in the 19th century. Teen girls were not taking selfies, they were working on the farm and in the house. Mattie Ross is an exceptional figure, larger than life in many ways, but there’s also an unvarnished realism here. She’s a Bible quoting Presbyterian who doesn’t have time to trifle. How exactly do we think the West was won? By women (or girls, as the case may be) like Mattie.

Portis worked as a journalist in New York City before moving home to Arkansas to write books. He has four other novels to his credit—The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, Gringo, and Norwood—all of which are fan favorites. The New York Times says of his books: “Mr. Portis evokes an eccentric, absurd world with a completely straight face. As a result there are not a lot of laugh-out-loud moments or explosive set pieces here. Instead of shooting off fireworks the books shimmer with a continuous comic glow.”

Clearly, Portis has a unique voice and a great sense of detail to go with his good humor. I’m also intrigued by his knowledge of American history and fascination with place. In an essay for The Atlantic, “Combinations of Jacksons,” Portis describes his family history and culture, both firmly rooted in place.

MY ALABAMA grandmother wasn’t pleased when her youngest son (a seventh son, my father) told her of his plans to marry an Arkansas girl. She kindly explained to him that the unfortunate women living west of the Mississippi River had, among other defects, feet at least one size bigger than those of their dainty little sisters to the east. No Cinderella to be found in the Bear State. Any mention of that old slander, even a teasing one fifty years later, could still make my placid mother bristle and blaze up a little. In any kind of refined-foot contest, she said, she would pit her Waddell-Fielding-Arkansas feet against all comers with Portis-Poole-Alabama feet.

In my quest to understand the man, I read his novel, The Dog of the South directly following my reading of True Grit. The Dog of the South is narrated by a son of Little Rock and failed journalist, Ray Midge. Midge, 26, is a bit of a mess, but he’s also on a quest to right the wrongs in his life, thus he is also heroic. His hero’s journey to Central America and back is clownish, for sure, but there’s also a seriousness of intent and time for informed reflection. Ideals, people and places worth fighting for (including actual battle sites along his route)—this is what occupies his mind as he travels by car to find his runaway wife.

There’s a passage at the end of The Dog of the South, where Midge is back in Little Rock and catching the reader up on his status. He says, “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.” I love this line. Place, particularly one’s home place, has a magnetic hold on us and Portis both reveals this truth, and revels in it.