I've been thinking lately about the nature of true grit. Like many others I made a point of seeing the movie, having been a huge fan of Charles Portis's original book. In the late 60s and early 70s, books about young women with gumption were sometimes hard to come by. Oh yes, there was Nancy Drew, but she so often relied on 'the boys' to help her out when the going got rough; There was also Pippi Longstocking, but she was for a younger readership. I was glad to see that the Coen brothers were true to the original Mattie and her enterprising spirit. Truly, she was the hero of the story, and not Rooster Cogburn, as the 1969 John Wayne film version would have you believe.
Ree Dolly, the tenacious teenager from the movie Winter's Bone is cut from the same cloth as Mattie Ross, though the story is darker. The movie follows follows the mostly falling fortunes of 17 year old Ree as she discovers that her meth-cooking father is on the lam, having put the family house up for bond. If he doesn't show up in court, the family - 2 kids and a mentally absent mother - will lose everything. She sets out to find him among all the hard luck people living in her corner of the Ozarks and gains some unwanted attention from those who wish her father to stay hidden. The book is based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, an author whose works have been called "country noir".
Another novel featuring a woman who finds herself in an untenable situation is the award-winning Outlander by Gil Adamson. In the winter of 1903, Mary has lost her baby son to sickness and is frequently beaten by her abusive husband. She takes desperate measures to escape her situation, killing her husband and fleeing west. She is pursued by the vengeful twin brothers of her husband, a pair of single-minded, 'Terminator' type characters who turn out to be excellent trackers. Along the way she falls into the company of a group of eccentrics in a hard-scrabble mining town at the bottom of a mountain.
Though these stories aren't science fiction, all of them share an apocalyptic feel - an unforgiving landscape, a sense of lawlessness, and a determined underdog on a quest. And there are more of these than you might think: Molly Gloss's story of eastern Oregon, The Hearts of Horses, the somewhat obscure and spoofy Caprice by George Bowering, and Away by Amy Bloom. All of these stories feature strong female characters who move the action along. If that's your cup of tea, then happy reading and watching.