My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I gave this book 5 stars because I simply haven’t enjoyed reading a novel as much as this one in a long time. Most people will be familiar with the story from the epic John Wayne movie and those with a childhood in the 1970s probably remember it being on TV pretty much every Christmas. However, while the film tells the same story what is missing, what can only be got from reading the book (and what is probably the unique value of this tale) is how it is told.
The plot is a quest for revenge. A “miserable scoundrel” shoots an upstanding member of the frontier Arkansas community and in a world of crooked lawyers and uncaring judges, his fourteen year old daughter takes it on herself to see that justice is done. It is she who narrates the tale and we see everything through her eyes. Headstrong, independent and single minded, Mattie Ross represents a certain character of frontier woman, the sort for whom the world is black and white and the moral ambiguities that plague many don’t get in her way. At one point late in the narrative, looking back as an old woman, she comments that many folk say her only loves are “her bank account and the Presbyterian Church” and that is about the depths of her introspection which perhaps gives a good idea of her character. Anyone coming from a Scots-Irish background will probably recognise her character straight away.
It is her single-minded, unquestioning pursuit of justice that drives the plot and leads her to team up with a Texas ranger called LeBeof and the inimitable Rooster Cogburn, a US Marshal every bit as much of a rogue as the outlaws they chase. It is natural justice, regardless of what the law thinks, that Mattie seeks and what Cogburn recognizes and responds to. An immature, at times unsympathetic character - she shoots a man in the head at one point and the reader is left with little doubt that the deed ever troubled her sleep - having the story told through her eyes reminded me of another classic of naive narration, Good Behaviour by Molly Keane.
All in all, the book is an excellent portrayal of the hard life on the frontier of the United States in the last century and the sort of personalities it took to forge that nation. Not always heroic, noble or pushed by high minded ideals, it was the Mattie Rosses and the Rooster Cogburns who probably did as much to build the West as the Lincolns.
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