Study Guide

True Grit Setting

By Charles Portis


Arkansas and Indian Territory a.k.a. Oklahoma, November 1875- to approximately 1923

The events may be fantastic, but the setting is 100% realistic. We can follow (basically) the same route Mattie Ross takes from her hometown as she tracks Tom Chaney, the man who murdered her Papa, Frank Ross, in November of 1875. (In fact, someone's already done it.)

The journey begins in Yell County, Arkansas, where Mattie and her family live on almost five hundred acres of land on the Arkansas River. (In 1875 terms, this makes them part of the 1%.) When Mattie learns of her Papa's murder, she travels to Fort Smith, Arkansas; from Fort Smith she travels into what is today Oklahoma and what was then Indian Territory, all the way into the Winding Stair Mountains.

Mattie Maps her Life and Times

With her map-like eye for geographical detail Mattie weaves descriptions of this vivid landscape into her tale. Take this funny moment from when Mattie is trying to hire Rooster by calling him a slob (works every time):

"I would be ashamed of myself living in all this filth. If I smelled as bad as you I would not live in a city, I would go live on top of Magazine Mountain where I would offend no one but rabbits and salamanders." (5.111)

Earlier, Mattie informs us that Mount Magazine is "the highest point in Arkansas" (1.9). See, Mattie loves her home state—she's practically a walking tourism brochure. (We can assume that her creator, the publicity-shy Arkansas native Charles Portis, loves it too.) At the end of the novel we almost feel like we've traveled through Arkansas with her.

That doesn't mean we get any boring history lesson. For all that Mattie does tell us, she skips over a lot.

  • She doesn't talk about the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which is why the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations are even living in Indian Territory in the first place rather than in their native southeastern lands. (Don't worry: we're here to help with that too. Just keep reading.)
  • She doesn't tell us that the U.S. Civil War officially ended in 1865, about ten years before her adventure, and that the country is the process of a massive restructuring known as Reconstruction, but she does help us feel the sense of adventure and excitement.
  • She doesn't tell us that the U.S. has gone railroad-crazy and is laying tracks like there's a run on steel. But she does show us lots of trains, and she weaves the train robbery subplot into her tale of revenge.
  • She doesn't tell us that she's living in a time of massive social, political, and technological change. Things we take for granted—light bulbs, typewriters, barbed wire, copy machines, and record players are new inventions and quickly changing the technological and social landscape—just as railroads are changing the physical landscape.

This is not a book about history any more than it's a book about geography. It's a book about loss and vengeance and sacrifice.

Could this plot work in a time other than 1875? We think so—revenge plots are pretty timeless. But remember that Mattie opens the novel by saying that it was more common back in those days for girls to run off by themselves to pursue vengeance? Maybe the time does matter.

Dating True Grit

Yea, we go out with True Grit. For months Shmoop and True Grit have been everywhere together. The movies. The mall. Sushi. Even the bookstore.

LOL. Okay, fine. We'll keep personal feelings out of it.

Actually, we can't date the novel precisely until the last few pages when we learn the years of Rooster's birth and death. It's simple math: we already know Rooster is forty when he meets Mattie. He was born in 1835. 1835+40=1875. Presto! Mattie's quest for vengeance takes place in late 1875. Rooster dies about twenty years later, in 1903. Since Mattie was fourteen in 1875, she's only about forty-two years old in 1903 when she sets off to try to reunite with Rooster.

And then we learn when Mattie is writing:

I heard nothing more of the Texas officer, LaBoeuf. If he is yet alive and should happen to read these pages, I will be pleased to hear from him. I judge he is in his seventies by now, and nearer eighty than seventy. (7.337)

Twenty years after Rooster's death would put the time in about 1923, almost fifty years since she's seen either of the men who helped her avenge her father's murder. See, we know that LaBoeuf is ten years younger than Rooster, thirty when he helps Mattie hunt Tom Chaney. So he was fifty-eight in 1903 (when Rooster dies).

One thing: we might also notice that Mattie doesn't mention a huge event that happened in between Rooster's death and the writing of her story: World War I. But then again, why would she? Mattie might be living and writing in 1923, but it's always 1875 in her heart.

1875 in Context

To get a fix on the year 1875 we are providing you with a nifty annotated timeline, specially tailored to show how 1875 in the context of True Grit can help us understand our own place/time in history.

1783—The Treaty of Paris officially ends the American Revolution and begins the American experiment. It also marks a new phase in the battle between the new Americans and the Native Americans over territory. We see another phase of this ongoing battle in the 1875 of True Grit.

1830—The Indian Removal Act is signed into law by then President Andrew Jackson. The act authorizes the president of the U.S. to trade lands with Native American peoples. Unfortunately, such "trades" were often done without the consent of the Native American peoples, who were forced to move from their homes to lands considered less desirable.

1838 and 1839—During these years, the U.S. military forcibly removed fifteen thousand Cherokee from their lands east of the Mississippi River to the Indian Territory we see in True Grit, present-day Oklahoma. (Some hundred thousand American Indians were removed in all.)

1865—In this year Abraham Lincoln is both sworn in for his second term as U.S. president and also assassinated. In between these two momentous historical events, the US Civil War ends. In December of this year, after Lincoln's death, the Thirteenth Amendment is ratified and slavery is abolished.

The period which followed this massive change in U.S. political (and therefore social and cultural) structure is known as Reconstruction and is another period of intense change and restructuring. We discuss some of these changes in the context of True Grit in "Themes" under "Visions of America." We get glimpses of the Civil War through conversations between Mattie, Rooster, and LaBoeuf.

1875—Mattie avenges her Papa's death.

1968—In this year, Charles Portis publishes True Grit. Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. Andy Warhol is shot. Robert Kennedy is assassinated. President Johnson orders a cease to all bombings of Northern Vietnam. Apollo 8 Orbits the moon. A truly gritty year.

1969—The film version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, is released. Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. Woodstock happens.

2010—The Coen Brothers release a second film adaptation. It gets ten Oscar nominations, but, sad face, no wins.

So, we have to ask: why would True Grit have so much appeal to the readers and moviegoers of the late 1960s? Why does it continue to appeal to readers and moviegoers in the 2000s?