Mattie Ross

September 1, 2017

This piece originally ran in ABOUT the River Valley magazine.
A radio version ran on the Ozarks at Large program on KUAF 91.3 FM, NPR.

As a child growing up in Dardanelle in Yell County, I lived with my parents and my grandmother Martin, whose room was right next to mine.  Her bed was always covered in a purple handmade quilt sewn by her youngest sister, Estella Mae. A photo of her and her late husband sat on the cedar chest, and she always kept the same two books on her nightstand: A faded blue leather King James Bible and a first edition paperback copy of True Grit  by Charles Portis.

Charles Portis is an Arkansas native. He was born in El Dorado in 1933 and raised in the tiny town of Hamburg, graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Arkansas in 1958. He’s best known for True Grit, though many of his fans say it’s actually his worst book. Others praise the work as one of the great American novels, a work some consider in the same vein as Huck Finn.

I was too young at the time to read anything longer than a chapter book, and all I knew of True Grit was that it featured murders and shoot outs and hangings and that somehow or another it was about our  hometown of Dardanelle. A picture of the fictitious Mattie Ross — the book’s fourteen year old protagonist — graced the front cover. Her long brown hair hung in braids and she’s balancing her weight on the butt of a rifle. In her left hand she’s holding loosely to the reigns of a black horse. The back pages were filled with pictures of John Wayne and Glen Campbell, an extended advertisement for the first film rendition of the novel, which was quite a hit in 1969. I remember picking the book up a few times thinking I’d give it a try. But I was young and quickly bored.

Though she received very little formal education, my elderly grandmother read voraciously. She enjoyed sitting in her harvest gold living room chair with a Louis L’amoure western or a religious booklet. Sometimes she’d stow away to her room to read the National Enquirer in secret. By the time I was a preteen she took to reading whatever I brought home from school or the library. She borrowed my Laura Ingalls Wilder and Judy Blume books. She made her way through a lot of Sweet Valley High stories and seemed to share my long-standing obsession with any book that had a horse in it.

By the time I was a teenager and taking AP English classes at Dardanelle High we were both reading Toni Morrison and Shakespeare. But it would not be until years after her death that I finally got around to reading about the spunky girl from Dardanelle, Arkansas, who “had clear title to 480 acres of good bottom land on the south bank of the Arkansas River.”

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school and visiting a friend’s parents in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, that I recalled that old bedside copy of True Grit. My friend’s father wanted to know where in Arkansas I was raised. Most people have no idea where Yell County is or, if they do, they make some kind of  joke about the nearby nuclear plant. But his eyes lit up when I said the name of my hometown. “You mean you’re Mattie Ross?” he laughed. It took me a minute to make sense of his question. “I’ve never met anyone from Dardanelle in Yell County,” he explained, quoting a line from the book.

I’d like to think I was quick witted enough to quote John Prine and laugh at my own fascination with meeting real people from Muhlenberg County. But instead I just told some rambling, unnecessary detailed story about how my grandmother had a copy of the book by her bed. Isn’t it funny how easily we are enamored with the artistic romanticization of someone else’s hometown?

My grandmother had been dead for about five years by then, but I’d had the copy of the book on my shelf since her death. And with this conversation I realized it was high time I learned about this Mattie Ross character. By then I was in my early thirties and the John Wayne and Glen Campbell film version had become a classic. The Cohen Brothers were gearing up to make their 2010 film version featuring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Hailee Steinfeld, giving the book increased exposure.

When I picked up the old paperback it was yellowed and brittle and smelled like dust. I wondered how many times my grandmother had read it and how she’d come to own a copy in the first place. The book is set in the late 1800s, not too long after the end of the Civil War. It begins with Mattie speaking:  “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-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.”

She explains that the family’s hired hand, a man by the name of Tom Chaney, went off with her father to Fort Smith to purchase some horses. While there Chaney wound up in the middle of a gambling game gone wrong. When Mr. Ross tried to keep Chaney from fighting, Chaney shot him in the head killing him instantly. Then he ran off with Mr. Ross’s money and his horse and his gold plated watch. With her mother sick in bed it falls on young Mattie to head to Fort Smith to collect the body. She travels with Yarnell, a black man who I’ll touch on a bit later. “From our place to Fort Smith was about seventy miles as the bird flies,” Mattie explains, “taking you past beautiful Mount Nebo where we had a little summer house so Mama could get away form the mosquitos, and also Mount Magazine, the highest point in Arkansas, but it might as well have been seven hundred miles for all I knew of Fort Smith.”

We don’t know much about the deceased Mr. Ross, but Mattie makes it clear that she adored her father. As many critics have noted, her attachment to Rooster Cogburn — the “deputy marshall for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas having criminal jurisdiction over the Indian Territory” that she hires to avenge her father’s death — is at least partially her way of latching on to another father figure. Whereas Mr. Ross was a so-called stand up, wealthy landowner with two California gold pocket watches, Mattie first happens across Rooster Cogburn while he’s being questioned by the infamous Hanging Judge Isaac Parker for shooting an unarmed man. As the story progresses we learn that Rooster has a sordid history at best. But in Mattie eyes he has real “grit,” and is the best person to locate her father’s killer. Mattie has money to pay Rooster for the job and she’s determined to accompany him as he makes the trek out west where Chaney is presumed to be.

Though a fictional plot, the landscape and cultural dynamics are largely accurate and still visible today. For starters, there’s Mattie’s fathers ties to California, a narrative running through the histories of just about everyone in Yell County. Mattie passes through familiar points along the way, including Mount Nebo where we learn that her family is of the small wealthy class of Dardanelle folks who can afford to summer in the cool of the mountains. Mattie rides with a black man named Yarnell to Fort Smith, a hired hand who has to sit in a segregated rail car and is on the receiving end of racial slurs from the white man running the train. When they arrive in Fort Smith they learn that there is to be a triple hanging that day thanks to the notorious Judge Parker. And Mattie frequently encounters Native Americans from multiple tribes, noting that Fort Smith lies on the outskirts of what would have been termed “Indian Territory.”  And there is plenty mentions of regional outlaws Jessie and Frank James for good measure.

As multiple reviewers have noted, True Grit is both a western and a parody of one, and a young and blunt Mattie Ross provides the deadpan narration that carries the story. The lines between con men and law enforcement are vague at best and life in the so called Indian Territory is filled with a lot of backstabbing and gun powder and revenge. In other words, there’s no good ole days to be found here.

Yet at the same time, Portis gives little space for his characters to speak to or against the evils of a world where monied white people hold all the power. Nor do his characters take any real opportunities to question unjust systems that are in place. And while it’s true that Mattie Ross is a protagonist who defies her own gender and social norms, she never comes across as anyone trying to call the larger social system into question. For example, when she tells the back story of a black man named Yarnell she mentions how he was born free in Illinois but later kidnapped in Missouri and brought to Arkansas before the Civil War.

Maybe she does find fault with a system that made it possible for a person to be kidnapped and owned in her home state. But she doesn’t say so. By the end of the book, when she has long since returned to her home in Dardanelle, we learn that she enters into her later years as a wealthy, one-armed, unmarried banker who chooses to have the late Rooster Cogburn dug up from a Confederate cemetery in Memphis and reburied in Dardanelle. She has a tombstone made for him in Batesville inscribed with these words: “A Resolute Officer of Parker’s Court.”

It’s pretty clear early on that the so-called grit she’s looking for in Rooster Cogburn can be found in herself. She starts off pretending to be tough and initially has to convince Cogburn and Labeouf (another law enforcement official on the trail of Chaney) that she’s fit to make the trip to avenge her father’s murder. By the end of the book she’s seen shoot outs and helped load dead men onto horses. She fights rattle snakes and fires weapons. And she wins the respect of the two morally questionable officers of the law who are better at drinking and arguing then finding criminals.

As my friend Rachel Reynolds Luster notes in her Art of the Rural article, “Bread and Buttered: Ozark Women on Screen,” Mattie fully embodies the “plucky” Ozark and Ouachita archetype. She is crafty and determined. She’s resourceful and cares little for how the rest of the world sees her. She admires people who live in the gray areas of life and when she sets her mind to something you know she’s going to get it done. And isn’t this the archetype all of us Yell County women aspire to be? At the very least, it’s certainly how we like to remember our collective grandmas.

For all the messages young Arkansas girls are given about what it means to be a woman, we all know that hovering around the edges of those pervasive, stifling, sexist ideas about passivity or gentleness or under-nuanced godliness, there’s a whole word of stories where our bygone great aunts and grandmothers were tough, resourceful, fearless and creative. They wrung chicken necks. Their depression-era kitchens were home to an endless loaves and fishes situation. Despite being drenched in a world of patriarchy, no man would dare override their decisions. At least not by the time they hit seventy. It’s a duality of messages that confuses young girls and lead to the complex stories of middle-aged women. Just as Portis sets up his book as both a western and a parody of one, I’d say that Mattie Ross provides a useful caricature of how we all like to imagine our elderly female relatives: they don’t take any mess.

Though True Grit is often considered to be one of Portis’s least funny novels, I found myself laughing in at least a few of the places where Mattie quotes scriptures. Take for example this passage where she goes to the barn in Fort Smith to take a look at the ponies her father had purchased before being murdered:

“I hated these ponies for the part they played in my father’s death but now I realized the notion was fanciful, that it was wrong to charge blame to these pretty beasts who knew neither good nor evil but only innocence. I say that of these ponies. I have known some horses and a good many more pigs who I believe harbored evil intent in their hearts. I will go further and say all cats are wicked, though often useful. Who has not seen Satan in their sly faces? Some preachers will say, well, that is superstitious “claptrap.” My answer is this: Preacher, go to your Bible and read Luke 8:26-33.”

Just like a Yell County preacher, Mattie likes to make references to the Bible without actually quoting scripture, forcing the reader to admit to themselves that they haven’t read their Bible nearly enough to have committed it all to memory, guilting them in to pulling out the good book the first chance they get.

Of course, this is the story of how Jesus sends the demons into the pigs. There’s a world of symbolism going on with Mattie and animals, way too much to discuss in this short article. But I think it’s safe to say that Mattie’s relationship with the Bible will have a familiar ring to those of us raised in the region. She never let’s the Bible get in the way of what she deems justice. And she finds it to be an apt book at upholding the predominant morals of the day.

Reading this book as an adult, and thinking about the tough attitude of this mythical young girl from Yell County, I found myself wanting Mattie to do so much more than just push past the boundaries of age and gender. I wanted her to take that can-do attitude and ask tough questions about Jim Crow and Native American rights in world that was being rapidly colonized. I wanted her to wrestle with the whys and hows of the Civil War, an event that Mattie references throughout the book. But I’d say that  behind Portis’s depiction of Mattie as a self-reliant young Ouachita girl, is a voice that’s ultimately reflecting the world, not really challenging it.

I have read True Grit a few times now and I’m sad to say that all that wear and tear has torn my grandmother’s old book to pieces. Both the front and back covers are no longer attached, and my toddler daughter made off with one of the photos of John Wayne. I suppose there goes the book’s worth as a collector’s edition. Despite my critique of Mattie’s ultimate adherence to the status quo, I can easily imagine how my grandmother would have been drawn to a person like her. Who wouldn’t be? After all, she was only fourteen years old and facing all her fears — a preteen version of the gutsy grandma we all want to know and/or be. And maybe there’s more to Mattie than I can see. Perhaps she’s there in all her bravery and flaws to remind us of both our cultural strengths and weaknesses.

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