Thoughts on a Book: ‘True Grit’

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!

What are Jayhawkers?

This week, I was going to write about the Mt. Vernon Grays — who were they and, best I can tell, what happened to everyone after they joined the Third Texas Cavalry in August of 1861.

I did say, however, that this would depend on how the research was going. So far, it’s gone well. I’ve discovered some neat stuff, but I’m just not ready to post this article yet.

So, this Civil War Wednesday will be about Jayhawkers.

What are Jayhawkers? Most people, particularly basketball fans, have heard of the University of Kansas Jayhawks, but according to Merriam-Webster, a Jayhawker is “a member of a band of antislavery guerrillas in Kansas and Missouri before and during the American Civil War.”

Alternatively, the online dictionary says it is “a native or resident of Kansas.”

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Other online sources say the term originated in the 1840s, and was a mash-up of two aggressive, native birds, the blue jay the sparrow hawk. The word also was used to describe people who passed through the Kansas Territory on their way to California in the late 1840s. Depending on who’s talking, being called a “Jayhawker” could be a compliment or an insult.

From 1854 to 1861, the term was used for Kansans involved in the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict, which was over whether or not Kansas would be a slave or free state.

John_Brown_daguerreotype_c1856 -
John Brown. By John Bowles (1833-1900).

According to a summary on the National Parks Service website, during the Bleeding Kansas era, “murder, mayhem, destruction and psychological warfare became a code of conduct in Eastern Kansas and Western Missouri. A well-known examples of this violence was the massacre in May 1856 at Pottawatomie Creek where John Brown and his sons killed five pro-slavery advocates.”

Texas Cavalryman Columbus Williamson “C.W.” Holbrook was familiar with Jayhawkers. In his diary, he even writes about being shot by one.

Near Neosho, Missouri, on September 3, 1861, Holbrook makes the following entry:

It came my lot to stand guard to night. I was standing in the corner of a cornfield between the hours of one and two oclock when a cowardly Jayhawker slip[p]ed up on me within fifteen steps. 

I halted him but before I had the word farly out of my mouth he fired at me, hit me in the right arm just above the elbow. I fired at him with my six shooter don’t know wheather I hit him or not. He ran through the stalks lilk a wild buck and disappeard.

There is no other mention of the injury in the diary, so it must not have been that serious.

On Sept. 20, there was another mention of Jayhawkers, but this story ends quite differently:

This morning we arose as before stated at day break, considerably refreshed by the short nap and started on. We crossed spring river traveled two or three miles from camp. Stoped at an old Dutchman’s who said there were about forty Jayhawkers there the morning before and robed them of almost every thing they had. 

We were ordered by our Captain to feed our horses and eat our breakfast. We had fed our horses and unsaddled them and were all hovered over the several little fires we had kindled to boil our meat talking and laughing in fancied security from Jayhawkers and as [illegible] Taylor said, the ballance of mankind, when one of our advance guard came runing in at full spead with his hat in his hand slaping his horse at every jump said there were about sixty Jayhawkers just over the hill. 

Every man to his horse cries the Captain, saddle up! My sadelle was on the fence and my bridle tangled up generaly speaking but I managed to get it on and saddle my horse in all possiable dispatch. By this time we could see them coming over the hill. 

We mounted our horses and fell into line but was supprised to see the reported sixty make a column a half a mile long they come they come and still they come their colums stretched out across the prairie in magestic and war like display Captain Russel sent one man to learn their number and to know wheather they were friends or foes, and to our great delight they turned out to be the ballance of our regiment with Col Greer at their head who had left camp at twelve oclock to reinforce us if necessary, and had crossed the river above us and were coming down. 

I dont know how the boys felt but I know I felt better about this time than I have since I left home, and from the smiles that that were playing upon the countinence of the boys one would guess they were enjoying the same pleasant sensations.

I would imagine so!

Until next week when, hopefully, I’ll be ready to tell you more about the Mt. Vernon Grays.