Sunday, June 27, 2010
Bone, grit -- and being your brother's keeper
I don't often write about movies I haven't actually seen, but when I heard a sound clip on NPR's Fresh Air from Winter's Bone -- a story of a teenage girl seeking her fugitive father so her family's house will not be taken in lieu of his bail -- I was taken back in time. While this voice was, on the one hand, very contemporary, it also took me back to 1880, and the voice of Charles Portis' own fictional girl teenager improbably pursuing a fugitive across dangerous territory in his 1968 novel True Grit (later made into a film that won John Wayne an Oscar). Both voices seemed somehow out of time, almost biblical in their plainness and spirit.
It had been decades since I read True Grit, so I searched the Web in search of excerpts. Reading the below from the opening pages of the novel (excerpted at the bottom of this NPR article here), I was surprised to find myself choked with tears. The narrator -- the teenager Mattie Ross -- is describing, in the plainest of words, how her father was killed by his drunken tenant while the two men were away on a business trip together. The tenant, Tom Chaney, felt he had been cheated at cards and had grabbed his rifle to go in search of the men he had gambled with. Mattie's father, without a weapon, went in pursuit of him in an effort to stop him. He did not get far before Tom Chaney turned on him without a word:
Tom Chaney raised his rifle and shot him in the forehead, killing him instantly. There was no more provocation than that and I tell it as it was told to me by the high sheriff of Sebastian County. Some people might say, well, what business was it of Frank Ross to meddle? My answer is this: he was trying to do that short devil a good turn. Chaney was a tenant and Papa felt responsibility. He was his brother’s keeper. Does that answer your question?
I cannot tell you for sure why those words touched me so, but it brought to my awareness that I have been working very hard to be my fellow's keeper in recent weeks, as well as how dangerous such a path can be. But what really made me cry may not have been the fear; it may have been the realization of my determination -- no matter the risk -- to follow that very basic, implicit command that stands nearly at the very beginning of the Torah -- the command to not be like Cain. The command to indeed be the keeper of one's fellow. Even when it is very hard.
This week will see the Fast of Tammuz, a day commemorating the disaster that was the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, an event that would be followed some three weeks later by the destruction of the Temple itself, a disaster that might have destroyed the Jews as a people, but did not. We were sustained by our faith, by the knowledge that our Torah is a Torah of righteousness and justice -- a Torah that demands we care for our fellow. And for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that you, too, will be sustained by the Torah of truth and justice, and find true grit when you need it.