Just finished reading True Grit by Charles Portis. Wow, what great read!!. I admit having loved both film versions of this tale – the 1968 movie with John Wayne and last year’s reimagining with Jeff Bridges – but I have never read the novel from which they were derived. Well, it's a coming-of-age tale, a quest and a morality lesson all wrapped up in elegant wit. It has an amazing protagonist in the character of Mattie Ross, whose voice is entirely, wonderfully original. I don’t know how Portis (who was 35 years old when he wrote the book) managed to create a feisty, 14-year-old frontier girl channeled through her later incarnation as a fortysomething spinster remembering her great adventure, but the writing is simply brilliant. Even if you are not partial to Westerns, you should read this one. It’s laugh-out-loud funny and the ending makes you grab for the tissues.
Humorist Roy Blount, Jr. noted that “Charles Portis could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to be, but he’d rather be funny.” That’s the absolute truth.
Reading True Grit led me to ponder other novels of the
Western genre that I have enjoyed. And I suppose I should include McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. But I have to say, it’s distinctly lacking in humor. Given that its two protagonists are teenage boys on an adventurous journey across the Rio Grande into Mexico in 1949, you would expect some chuckles. The two horsemen pick up a sidekick--a laughable but deadly marksman named Jimmy Blevins-- on their way south and finally arrive at a hacienda just this side of paradise where one
of the boys stumbles into an ill-fated romance. Spare, beautiful but somber writing. After reading Portis, I can't help but wonder what he would have done with this familiar story.
In thinking about novels of the West, you have to think James Michener's Centennial. And thinking of Centennial, the words "sprawling" and "epic" come to mind. Go ahead and name a trope of the old West and Centennial's got it: Native Americans,
migrating white men and women, cowboys, and foreigners. It tells the story of trappers, traders, homesteaders, gold seekers, ranchers, and hunters--all caught up in the dramatic events and violent conflicts that forged the destiny of our legendary West.
Speaking of sprawling, epic novels, Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove falls into that category as well. Set in the late nineteenth century, it tells the story of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, but its themes reach for so much more.
The drive represents for all the men involved not only a daring, even foolhardy, adventure, but a part of the American Dream -- the attempt to carve a new life out of the last remaining wilderness.
You probably can't talk about Western novels without talking about Jack Shaefer's Shane. It takes the classic story starter, "a stranger comes to town," and raises it to the next level. The stranger who rides out of the heart of the great glowing West, into the small Wyoming valley in the summer of 1889 is Shane. He becomes a friend and guardian to the Starrett
family at a time when homesteaders and cattle rangers battled for territory and survival. Schaefer's classic brilliantly illuminates the spirit of the West through the eyes of a young boy and a hero who changes the lives of everyone around him.
Other Westerns of note: My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, and Sea of Grass by Conrad Richter. All this Western talk makes me want to get my boots on and saddle up!!
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