From the opening sentence in her remarkable tale of justice and revenge, Mattie Ross grabs our attention and never lets up.
“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.”
The heroine of Charles Portis’ “True Grit” – this year’s choice for Wichita’s Big Read, Oct. 1 to Nov. 15 – Mattie speaks with authority, (unintended) wit and strong moral pronouncements as an older woman looking back on her adventure.
Her take on humanity grows out of a down-to-earth, common-sense view of the world, sure of good and evil, but conceding few foibles to her fellow pilgrims. She suffers no fools gladly, especially once she sets her mind to something.
In 1873, she has only one target in sight: the drunkard Tom Clancy, who murdered her father over a horse deal gone bad. As she leaves her home in Yell County, Ark., for the frontier border town of Fort Smith – with its notorious “hanging judge,” Isaac Parker – determination meets willfulness meets zeal.
All Mattie needs to find her father’s killer is a U.S. Marshal. And she settles on craggy, one-eyed Rooster Cogburn because he is reputed to have true grit. The irony, of course, is that she won’t be satisfied with anything less than an-eye-for-an-eye justice.
In the end, Mattie’s tale proves unforgettable because of her own true grit as a 14-year-old enforcer of the law. She becomes Cogburn’s equal, and – without spoiling the ending of the book – as a pint-sized dynamo, she defines the term “unstoppable.”
Organizers of this year’s Big Read hope readers won’t stop until they’ve finished “True Grit.”
Cynthia Berner Harris, director of libraries for the Wichita Public Library, said that she thinks readers will be won over by Mattie’s personality.
“One of the things that intrigued us about the book is that when people talk of ‘True Grit,’ they don’t think of the novel, but the movies,” she said. “Because of John Wayne’s performance in the original movie, many people focus more on Rooster Cogburn than on Mattie Ross. But there is a delightful novel behind the movies, one that is a bit unique because it has a young female heroine, and it is told through her reflections as an older woman.”
The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts managed by Arts Midwest and designed to revitalize the role of literature in American culture. This will mark the sixth consecutive year for Wichita’s Big Read, one of the longest-running programs in the country.
The secret of its success, Harris said, is that the library works with community partners to create a reading program that brings a book to life through multiple disciplines, from visual arts to music to reader’s theater.
Among the major Big Read events, both film versions of the novel – the 1969 one starring John Wayne and the 2010 one starring Jeff Bridges – will be shown as a double feature on Oct. 5; Tom Averill, author of “What Kansas Means to Me,” will deliver the keynote lecture on Oct. 13; and Old Cowtown Museum will be open on Oct. 27 for an afternoon of free Western performances.
Still, the Big Read is ultimately about reading.
The allure of “True Grit,” Harris said, is that it lets “somebody who may not be a regular reader reconnect with the joy of literary reading. For people who are readers but don’t read Westerns, they may find themselves stretching to broaden their reading experience.
“We want as many people as possible to join us,” she said, “in experiencing a work of literature in new ways, and having a conversation about it.”
Of course, in this instance, Mattie would likely get the last word.
For more information on the 2013 Big Read, go to www.bigreadwichita.org.