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True Grit

To the Editor:

There’s that gorgeous scene in the Coen brothers’ adaptation of “True Grit,” in which the young Mattie rides horseback with the caring mentor, played by Jeff Bridges. And that’s exactly the image that came to mind while reading Donna Tartt’s epic appraisal of Charles Portis in the June 28 issue. It read like an open-air adventure in the Wild West, complete with fascinating characters (Portis the phone conversationalist), derring-do (Tartt’s insistence on the friendship), and a quest for authenticity, a well-worn life and human connection — the kind you read about in novels. What a magnificent piece of writing.

Andrew Sherman
Brooklyn

To the Editor:

Back in 1993, I got the notion to call my cousin Charles Portis. Family lore had long ago informed me that Portis was the first cousin of my grandfather, William Portis de Yampert — a fact my grandmother would point out whenever I visited them and the original film version of “True Grit,” starring John Wayne, would come on the television. As a journalist myself, I also had learned that my cousin had been a journalist covering the civil rights movement before he turned to novel writing.

I had never met or talked to Portis when I read that he was back living in his native Arkansas, in Little Rock, and that his phone number was public and easy to look up. I was a bit nervous calling up a stranger and opening the conversation by telling him I was kinfolk, assuming he’d think the second line following such an opening salvo is usually “I need money.”

Charles answered the phone, which was something of a surprise, and he was quite cordial — another surprise — as I told him of my family roots in Smackover, Ark. Portis had been born just a short crow’s flight away in El Dorado. He was even more intrigued when I told him I was a journalist who often wrote about race issues in my weekly column.

I never called him apart from that one time. I’m grateful that my cousin and fellow journalist, despite his reputation of shunning the spotlight and being something of a recluse, decided to answer my call that day. And I thank Donna Tartt for reminding me of a meaningful conversation.

Rick de Yampert
Palm Coast, Fla.

The More Things Change

To the Editor:

Thank you, A. O. Scott, for the June 7 essay that brought Wallace Stegner back into my life. I picked up a copy of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” and began reading. Midway through, it’s the winter of 1918 and the flu hits the town. According to the town doctor, whiskey is the only thing that offers relief. The protagonist crosses the border to get to the city to purchase whiskey. On arrival all shops, the saloon and hotel are closed. A lone man on the street — wearing a mask — tells him to keep a distance of six feet.

It is now 102 years later. We have put a man on the moon, tourists are preparing to orbit the Earth, we can Zoom with people around the world, and for a few dollars and the push of a button I can have this book in less than a minute. But to fight the virus, I must wear a mask, keep six feet from everyone and maybe have a shot of whiskey. Something is wrong with this picture.

Judy Wallis
Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Mature Perspective

To the Editor:

So many books about youth and young people receive attention these days while seniors are often overlooked. As we age, in America and elsewhere, our views and paradigms are tested and shifted (or not) in ways that may be painful as well as profoundly gratifying and illustrative. I believe we need to emphasize more serious fiction by “authors of age” featuring desperately needed guidance on living such as only those who have actually lived (over a lifetime) can offer. In this particular moment, perhaps a truly broader perspective is exactly what is needed.

Josette Belvedere

Chicago