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Apr25

To Kill Tom Chaney

Mattie triumphantly swims the river to rejoin the hunt for Chaney, after escaping the ferryman LaBeouf and Cogburn tasked with taking her to town.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about my favorite heroines and what makes them so memorable. I’ve always been a big fan of the Lara Croft wily warrior archetype, but I also love leading ladies who have a more…shall we say, subtle…strength. Anyway, I thought it would be fun to do a blog series exploring some of these fictional women and what makes them extraordinary (and no, I don’t mean the E.O.-type of extraordinary created by the brilliant mind of V.E. Schwab in Vicious). Today, I’m looking at Mattie Ross from True Grit (as portrayed in the 1969 movie). I’m trying to infuse my sci-fi novel with a similar feel — not gritty in the modern application of the word, but more…dusty. Grounded. A world where people aren’t desensitized to death but are not surprised to stumble across it. It hurts, it’s a loss that tears at the soul, but they never expected to make it through life unscathed.

In the case of Mattie Ross, we see this right away when she witnesses a hanging for the first time (8 minutes into the movie). She’s come to town to claim her father’s body and tie up his affairs after he was murdered by Tom Chaney; but the embalming shop is closed on account of the big event. She doesn’t go with eagerness — neither does she look away. As a boy hawks warm peanuts over the sound of the townsfolk singing Amazing Grace, Mattie bats away a hand meant to cover her eyes, and three men drop to their death. Her response is simply, “My goodness”…delivered by the actress with a lack of drama but a wonderfully profound sense of emotion. Then she turns away to get back to her business, gladly noting that “Chaney would get his due before such a judge”.

Mattie Ross at the Hanging (True Grit)

Another quality I adore about Mattie is that she is unexpected. No one quite knows what to do with her — from the innkeeper who is startled when Mattie deftly negotiates a reduced rate, all the way to the outlaw Lucky Ned Pepper when he captures her after her huge relic of a revolver misfires. She can make a plan, take charge, carry through, and she isn’t about to let anyone else tell her she can’t. She’s a girl in the old west, and just barely more than a child; who is she to out-barter an experienced salesman and manipulate a federal marshal, much less hunt down a murderer running with a gang in Indian Territory? Not once do we see Mattie even acknowledging that question. Once she’s determined the right course of action, onward she shall proceed!

This quality, combined with her sharp wit, makes her memorable (Mattie, upon meeting the egocentric Texas Ranger La Boeuf: “I also notice that the men of Texas gouge their mounts with great brutal spurs and cultivate their hair like lettuce!”). Her deep sense of moral justice makes her admirable, especially since we see her initial naivety maturing to include an understanding of why men might make immoral choices. But I believe it is the exquisite combination of her vulnerability and determination that makes her truly stand out. Moments after being beaten soundly by La Boeuf for her stubborness, she leaps up from the ground and excitedly shares that the incident gave her an idea for how to capture Tom Chaney. We continually see glimpses of the bright, childish side of her nature that remind us how young she truly is and how strange it is that she is riding into outlaw country to  bring a man to justice; this only serves to heighten the impact of what she’s willing to endure, without complaint, to see justice served and Tom Chaney killed. Of course, we see a hue of revenge to her pursuit of justice, revealed by her opposition to La Boeuf’s agenda — she wants to see Chaney hanged for her father’s murder, “no matter how many dogs or senators he killed in Texas”. This is a fault in her character that we can all relate to, Inigo Montoya-style.

As a parting word of advice: if you only learn one thing from Miss Ross, it’s the value of getting people on your side who excel at what they do. You never know how many times in the course of adventure you’ll have to browbeat someone with the threat of bringing lawyers into it.

Mattie Ross in True Grit: J. Noble Daggett

La Boeuf: “She draws him like a gun!”

 

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