I wrote Tuesday about a real Western hero, who finally got his due, Idaho kayaker Walt Blackadar.
But I learned this morning that another one of my favorite fictional heroes is returning to print, Rooster Cogburn. Cogburn was the pitiless U.S. Marshal that narrator and heroine Mattie Ross hired to catch a killer in Charles Portis’ 1967 classic “True Grit.”
Most people think of “True Grit” as a movie and Rooster Cogburn as John Wayne, who one his only Oscar in the 1969 feature film. But the book itself is far richer and the characters grittier than their Hollywood substitutes.
Portis’ book has been reissued in a 40th anniversary edition. Allen Barra writes in Salon of the injustice that the book has not gotten its due as an American classic. Part of the blame, he said, is that literary types relegate westerns to genre fiction so they can dismiss it.
Only a few books seem to transcend this, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, A.B. Guthrie’s “The Big Sky,” and even Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy: “All the Pretty Horses”, “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain.”
“True Grit” was especially a treat for me when teachers in high school were requiring “Great Expectations,” I seemed never able to meet. My Mom was a librarian so I spent a lot of time at her work reading whatever I wanted.
I remember when I read the scene when Rooster puts his reigns in his teeth and rides alone with guns blazing toward the pack of outlaws. I couldn’t help but see John Wayne on the horse. But when I saw the movie two years later it just couldn’t match the excitement I had when I read Portis’ words.
This is a great Christmas book.