Fishtrap—the old literary non-profit that kept me going for over 20 years, is back with another National Endowment for the Arts sponsored “Big Read” this month. The book is Charles Portis’s True Grit—the tale of a 14 year-old girl named Mattie Ross avenging her father’s murder with the help of a Federal Marshall/gunman named Rooster Cogburn in a chase that begins in Arkansas and ends in Indian Territory.
I’d never read the book, and have only vague memories of John Wayne/Rooster and the girl traipsing across hard ground in a series of shoot-‘em-ups, gradually coming to terms with each other and eventually gaining some revenge. I have not seen the new film, so the movie picture poster of John Wayne was stuck in my mind as I began to read.
And then the book took over, the story carried me along. And the text didn’t send me back to the movie or on to other John Wayne’s—but to the Alvin Josephy book I think most neglected, The Civil War in the American West.
In the last chapters of that book, I slogged again through Josephy’s detailed descriptions of the conflict on the border lands—who knew there were so many generals blue and gray working Arkansas, Missouri, and Indian Territory; and so many “irregulars,” the Union sympathizing “jayhawkers” and Confederate “bushwhackers” that Rooster talks about and was. It can send one’s head spinning with what it must have been to have been there in that chaos and deadliness.
I’ve not been there, but from talking with people and reading accounts by those who have, I know that war is hell. Contemporary images—Cambodia, Rwanda, the amputees of Sierra Leone and video coverage of Syria and South Sudan today—are chilling. Yet our own Civil War still ranks in the front row of vicious conflicts. And Charles Portis’s Rooster Cogburn is a gun-slinging survivor of that. And Mattie too.
And not of the Main Event in the East, but this hodge podge of regulars and irregulars, jayhawkers and bushwhackers, Confederate Indians and Union sympathizing Indians and Indians just trying to survive, free blacks and freed slaves, opportunistic politicians, dispossessed townspeople and farmers, in some sense refugees and victims all in a sideshow of the big War being run from Washington and Richmond.
As Mattie moves into Indian Territory, fearing “wild Comanches,” she sees instead “rather civilized Creeks and Cherokees and Choctows from Mississippi and Alabama who had owned slaves and fought for the Confederacy and wore store clothes.” She doesn’t talk about Jackson’s removal policy that put them in Indian Territory, or about Stand Watie, the Cherokee general who commanded these Southern sympathizing Indians (and the last Confederate general to lay down arms). I don’t know how knowingly and ironically Portis gave Mattie the last name of the leader of the Union side of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross. His story is a tragic one.
We do know that Mattie has heard that Rooster “rode by the light of the moon with Quantrill and Bloody Bill Anderson.” Rooster admits as much later, explaining how he and his buddy Potter had, after the War, ducked away from a jayhawker on a one-day parole and got into the federal marshal business. We don’t hear about Quantrill’s raiders’ 1863 massacre. Josephy describes it this way: “in the most frightful atrocity of the Civil War, Quantrill, at the head of 450 guerillas, had burst upon the sleeping town of Lawrence, Kansas, massacring its male inhabitants and burning most of its buildings.”
On a lighter note, Rooster’s cat is named after the Confederate General Sterling Price. Josephy tells us that Price had a late grand scheme to go north into Illinois and engage in the Main Event. With Thomas C. Reynolds, Missouri’s Confederate Governor in Texas exile at his side, Price, “grown flabby, slow moving and obese, weighing almost 300 pounds,” pulled in an ambulance towed by four mules, intends to free Jefferson City, where Reynolds hopes to be installed as Missouri Governor, on his way to Springfield.
It doesn’t happen, and maybe Portis enjoyed giving the slow-moving Price’s name to Rooster’s cat. And letting Rooster’s evasive comments about Quantrill and the violence in the book speak to the ambivalent times in the Border Lands at Civil War’s end. Reading the historical account, realizing the cultural history that an educated Arkansan of Portis’s time carried as he wrote, Mattie and Rooster and their gun-slinging adventure gain credence—and let the rest of us in on pieces of the Civil War and its aftermath that Arkansans and Missourians and Indians know well.
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