Winners of Big Read ‘True Grit’ contest say Mattie Ross surpasses Rooster Cogburn

11/17/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:19 AM

The winners of this year’s Big Read contest made a compelling case that of the two main characters in Charles Portis’ novel “True Grit,” 14-year-old Mattie Ross has more grit than craggy, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn.

Don Phillips, a Junior ROTC instructor at South High School, won the adult division of the contest, and Lauren Agpoon, an eighth-grader at the Independent School, won the student division. Each received a $50 gift card.

For Phillips, “True Grit” is one of the better American novels of the past 50 years. What elevates it above other Westerns, he said, is that it is based on a specific historical time period and uses those details – such as Judge Parker in Fort Smith, Ark., and the Indian territories west of Arkansas (now Oklahoma) – to tell its story.

But “True Grit” also breaks the mold of the typical Western, he said, “by having a girl in the lead role. This puts it out of the mainstream.”

In addition to this innovation, Phillips liked the fact that Mattie showed at the end of the book how her adult personality was shaped by her adventures with Cogburn and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf. “She knew she couldn’t have done it all by herself,” he said, “and she owed the other characters to bring her father’s killer to justice.”

This was the first time for Phillips to participate in the Big Read. What caught his eye was the 1912 Charles Russell painting on the Big Read poster, “Smoking Cattle Out of the Breaks.” Because he likes Western art as well as Western novels, he knew he would enjoy what he read.

For Lauren, “True Grit” was the first Western novel she had read.

She said she was surprised that Mattie was the heroine of the book “because I would expect the hero of a Western novel to be a courageous man.” But that surprise turned out to be a pleasant one.

“What I enjoyed most about ‘True Grit’ was having a 14-year-old girl as the heroine because I can relate to her easily since we are close in age. Also, Mattie’s adventures, such as shooting Chaney herself, twice, and being captured by Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang, were fascinating.”

One question readers of the novel face is whether justice was done when Mattie finally shot and killed Tom Chaney in revenge. “I do think justice was done in the book,” Lauren said, “because if Mattie and Rooster Cogburn had turned Chaney in, the court may not have given Chaney as harsh of a punishment as he deserved.”

As with Phillips, this was Lauren’s first time to participate in a Big Read event, even though she has read other titles listed on the Big Read website.

“ ‘True Grit’ was an amazing book,” she said, “because it was suspenseful, full of action, and it captured my attention because the heroine was a brave young girl.”

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. Wichita’s program, coordinated by the Wichita Public Library, is one of the longest-running in the nation. This year’s program ran from Oct. 1 to Nov. 15.

Here are the winning essays:

A change of opinion; a change of life

I have seen both the “True Grit” movies, starring John Wayne in 1969 and the more recent version starring Jeff Bridges in the role of Rooster Cogburn. I have always considered Deputy U.S. Marshal Cogburn as the one with true grit.

However, I have just finished Charles Portis’ book on which both movies are based, and my opinion has changed. This does not lessen the courage or loyalty displayed by Marshal Cogburn, nor does it diminish similar characteristics of Texas Ranger LeBoeuf. But I think that Mattie Ross’ character is the one with true grit.

Upon first meeting Cogburn, Mattie mentioned that she had been told he had true grit, when from the opening of the book, she was the one who showed true grit. She consistently displayed her indomitable spirit and her sense of justice throughout the book in finding Tom Chaney for the senseless murder of her father.

We detect early on the high regard, love, admiration and respect she holds for her father, whereas her mother seems timid and indecisive.

Mattie exercised a great deal of determination in her dealing with the horse trader, Col. Stonehill, by selling the ponies back to him and later purchasing a little pony for herself. That pony, aptly named Little Blackie, would later die trying to save Mattie’s life.

She was resolute and did not waiver from her negotiations in hiring Cogburn. Her determination was also displayed by her decision to accompany the two peace officers in the search for and apprehension of Chaney.

Mattie’s courage and resourcefulness were illustrated by her swimming her pony across the river the day that Cogburn and LeBoeuf departed Fort Smith, Ark., to the Territories. Mattie’s self-discipline, combined with her willingness to accept hardship, was never in question throughout her journey to bring her father’s killer to justice.

Encountering the two thieves in the dugout and their ultimate demise, plus in the planned ambush of the Lucky Ned Pepper gang the following day, she never lost her focus. Mattie had never experienced such violence and death so closely and personally. Her strength and courage were again tested with the surprise encounter of Chaney at the stream. Those two attributes remained in the forefront in her abduction by the outlaws, the shooting of Chaney and her subsequent rescue from the snake-infested pit.

She remained strong and vigilant throughout her race with Cogburn to Fort Smith to obtain medical attention for her broken arm and snake bite. This would ultimately lead to the amputation of her lower arm.

We can see from the beginning of this novel that Mattie’s mettle, her true grit, was being tested again and again. We can also see that this experience shaped and molded her adult life.

Matched with her intelligence and strong character, it truly demonstrates that she is one with true grit.

Dogged spirit in the face of peril

To me, true grit is being courageous and steadfast in the face of an adversary or difficult situation. In my opinion, Mattie Ross has more true grit than Rooster Cogburn. In the first paragraph of “True Grit” she explains how no one believed that a 14-year-old girl would leave home to go on a quest to bring justice to her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney. Mattie endures the harsh winter, vicious assaults, witnessing multiple homicides, and shootouts, all the while, maintaining her dogged spirit throughout her perilous experiences.

Mattie meets U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, whom she has to pay for help on her crusade, and a meddlesome Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf. Rooster Cogburn has less grit than Mattie because he has no ambition; he would rather stay home, drink, and play cards. Cogburn forces Mattie to pay him to help find her father’s murderer despite the fact that it is his job. Her risk is greater than Rooster’s because she, as a young girl in 1870s America, must travel with two grown men she hardly knows in order to apprehend her father’s killer. Mattie leaves the safety of her own home and family and insists on traveling with the drunkard Cogburn and the egotistical LaBoeuf.

Cogburn and LaBoeuf try to desert Mattie by running off without her so she will not slow them down, but Mattie rides along and catches up with the men, which causes LaBoeuf to lose his temper with Mattie, as he takes a switch from a tree, and violently swats her leg with it until Cogburn threatens to shoot him. Instead of dwelling on her humiliation, remarkably Mattie uses LaBeouf’s attack as an idea for a plan to capture Tom Chaney.

Eventually, Mattie meets her dad’s murderer, and much to his surprise, shoots him. Soon after, Chaney’s friend Lucky Ned Pepper and his gang arrive and snatch Mattie, taking her back to their camp. Nevertheless, the courageous Mattie expresses no despair.

After Cogburn and LaBoeuf help Mattie escape, she shoots the wounded Chaney again, but this time in the head! When the gun’s recoil causes Mattie to fly back into a pit, which causes her to break her arm, she uses an arm that she dislocates from a corpse to support her and stop her from falling farther. Then, Mattie’s arm is bitten by a poisonous snake and has to be amputated. The unbelievably strong and mentally mature Mattie is the embodiment of pluck and courage during this horrendous ordeal.

In the course of the story, Mattie exemplified true grit; she acquired the help she needed and ensured that justice prevailed. Mattie did not cower from the man who murdered her father, and instead, sought him out with admirable tenacity. She would not be pushed around by barbarous criminals and held her own with unpleasant companions. Mattie’s fearlessness and spunk unquestionably define true grit.

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