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"The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don't enter into his thinking."

--Charles Portis

The year has just a few weeks left in it, and before the days run out, let's take a moment to remember that 2018 marked the 50th anniversary for one of the greatest literary works to come out of Arkansas.

In 1968, Charles Portis published True Grit, a western story of revenge, action and, well, grit. The true kind. And the story remains one of the great western tales of all time, teaching those ignorant of Arkansas towns that Dardanelle and Fort Smith are real places on the map.

Louis L'Amour may be thought of as the quintessential western storyteller in this country, and his work is certainly worthy of celebration. But none of his stories come close to matching Mr. Portis' True Grit in terms of narrative or style. Mr. Portis captures the perspective of a stubborn 14-year-old girl out for revenge.

In the 1950s, Louis L'Amour was getting his popular start writing stories about the fictional hero Hopalong Cassidy. Elmore Leonard was penning 3:10 to Yuma. Western fans were used to gruff cowboys like Clint Eastwood's stranger in A Fistful of Dollars by 1964. Imagine their surprise when Mr. Portis made his gruff cowboy Rooster a side character--and told the story of Mattie Ross.

There's so much to love about Mattie Ross, from her steadfastness to seek the coward that killed her father to the guts she needed to survive all the snakes. One of the best scenes in the book, and in our mind's eye, comes when she negotiates with a cotton trader to sell back horses her father had bought because she no longer needed them. She works him over with persistence, wit, and name-dropping her family attorney back home in Dardanelle to eventually get everything she wanted out of the infuriated businessman. Mattie is a marvel to read, and behold.

Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed U.S. marshal, and LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger, serve only as the cowboys who accompany Mattie Ross on her journey for revenge. Each comes with unique character flaws, as we all do. Mr. Portis did a fantastic job fleshing them out as human beings, even if we never do find out what happens to LaBoeuf in the end.

Even if you've never flipped through the original book, Gentle Reader, you've probably seen one of the two movie adaptations. One netted John Wayne his only Oscar, and the other . . . well, it was still a rare spectacle to see a remake as good as the original. We still get chills when Tom Chaney says, "I call that bold talk from a one-eyed fat man," before Rooster yells, "Fill your hand!" and charges across the valley.

Arkansas has made some immense contributions to writing, producing figures like Maya Angelou and John Grisham. Mr. Portis is certainly in their company. But if you're looking for additional reading on the man behind True Grit, you won't find much. The author has developed a skill for staying out of the spotlight.

For all the writing we've done about True Grit over the years, it turns out that Charles Portis was never really happy about being pegged as a western writer. And that's exactly what his most famous novel painted him as for a time, according to Jonathan Portis, Charles Portis' brother: "True Grit was a double-edged sword for him. On one edge of the sword, it was his most famous book. It brought him the most fame and a great amount of acclaim. On the other edge, he got pegged as a western writer."

Randy Newman will always be remembered for one novelty song. No accounting for the public's taste.

But before the year is out, let's remember this anniversary for True Grit. Now that we mention it, we were looking for a Christmas idea for one young reader. She's sure to enjoy.

Editorial on 12/10/2018

Print Headline: Before we end 2018

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