I recently finished the novel “True Grit,” by Charles Portis. It’s the story of Mattie Ross, a headstrong Arkansas teenager who heads off with two lawmen to avenge the murder of her father in 1870s “Indian Territory,” also known as Oklahoma.
The book was published in 1968 and has been made into two movies. The 1969 version starred Kim Darby as Mattie and John Wayne as one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. The 2010 remake, directed by the Coen Brothers, starred Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges in those roles.
I love Jeff Bridges. I would love to find myself sitting next to him on an airplane or at a bar someday. I loved his 2009 movie “Crazy Heart” and have been to that bar in Santa Fe, Evangelo’s, where part of it was filmed.
Evangelo’s is named for its founder, Angelo Klonis, subject of a famous World War II photo. Today, his son, Nick, runs the bar.
But back to the book.
Without spoiling anything, there were many words and phrases used by the author that I didn’t recognize. I imagined these were phrases used during the 1870s. So, I took some notes along the way, with the intention of looking them up later. Here’s what I found:
Blue-john — When talking about some milk that wasn’t up to her standards, Mattie calls it “blue-john.” According to the Urban Dictionary, she was referring to skim milk.
Pudding and tame — When Texas lawman LaBoeuf asks Mattie her name, she impertinently replies, “Pudding and tame.” An 1880 book with a near-eternal title, “Notes & Queries: A Medium of Communication for Literary Men, General Readers, etc.,” describes the phrase as part of a schoolyard rhyme: “What’s your name? Pudding and Tame; if you ask me again, I’ll tell you the same.”
Order of the Rainbow for Girls — Mattie refers to McAlester, Oklahoma, as “international headquarters of the Order of the Rainbow for Girls.” The International Order of the Rainbow for Girls is a Masonic organization founded in 1922, long after Mattie’s fictional adventure. Its headquarters wasn’t moved to McAlester until 1951, which would make Mattie near 100 years old when telling her story, but I guess it could happen. And it’s fiction.
Jay Gould — Mattie says, “They say Jay Gould had no heart!” in talking about a railroad man who was being a cheapskate. Apparently, Jay Gould was “one of the most unscrupulous ‘robber barons’ of 19th-century American capitalism.” So, it’s understandable why Mattie would say this.
Jamaica ginger — Rooster talks about someone called “old Cook” who was “all bowed over and his neck was stiff from drinking Jamaica ginger.” I found several references to Jamaica ginger online, but most concerned Prohibition. Basically, it was a “medicine” that got you drunk and it had some pretty bad side effects, including making you walk funny.
Dogfall — Bad guy Lucky Ned Pepper asks Rooster, “Do you think one on four is a dogfall?” In rodeo terminology, a dogfall is an illegal steer-wrestling maneuver.
Varnish train — After her adventure, Mattie rides home to Dardanelle, Arkansas, on what she calls a “varnish train.” She was referring to the fancy, wooden passenger cars of the day that were heavily varnished.
As someone with “write a novel” on her bucket list, I often find myself admiring great lines written by other writers, or being jealous that I didn’t write them myself. In “True Grit,” when describing how a particular gunshot hit its target, Portis writes, “The ball flew to its mark like a martin to its gourd…”
Simple, but you can totally see it, right?
I also appreciated (and identified with) this quote from the book. It’s attributed to Rooster, a man who’s had a string of jobs but makes his living tracking down (and shooting) bad guys: “Nothing I like to do pays well.”
Kind of like writing! Oh well, happy reading!