I am willing to bet that a substantial portion of adults recognize the name Doc Holliday when they hear it. But I am more willing to bet that most of them know nothing of Doc’s life other than that he was skinny, had a bad cough, was a cardsharp, and participated in Tombstone’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. After all, that’s about all Hollywood has much bothered to tell us.
Mary Doria Russell is here to help remedy that; Doc, her 2011 western novel, admirably fills in the blanks, turning Doc Holliday into a living, breathing human being in the process. The very first paragraph of the book places readers on notice that they are beginning a tragic novel, not some Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show version of the Old West:
“He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.” (Page 3)
Holliday found his way to Tombstone, Arizona, only after being convinced it was time to close up shop in Dodge City, Kansas, where he and the Earp brothers had managed to carve out a living for themselves. Russell’s description of Dodge and what life was like there during the town’s peak years is relatively close to the portrait most often painted by television and movies.
“The facts were these. Dodge City did not invent or manufacture goods. Dodge did not raise or educate children. It did not nurture or appreciate the arts. Dodge City had a single purpose: to extract wealth from Texas. Drovers brought cattle north and got paid in cash; Dodge sent them home in possession of neither.” (Page 28)
But from Russell’s account of Dodge City, it is evident that the everyday existence of men like the Earp brothers was a good bit tamer than one has commonly been led to believe. Gunfights occurred, of course, but they were far from being a daily or even a weekly affair.
|Doc with Kate Elder|
From the Armand de Gregoris Collection
No, Doc is a book about real people living real life, and Russell does her best to distinguish between myth and reality. She explores personality, motivation, character, background, and chance as it impacts her novel’s main characters: Doc Holliday, Kate Elder (as Hungarian Maria Katarina Harony came to be known), Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, and Virgil Earp. Even prone to violence, gambling, drinking, and whoring as these people were, Russell succeeds in making sympathetic (and human) characters out of each of them. Take, for instance, this passage describing Morgan Earp as seen through the eyes of his mother:
“Even when he was little and just listened, Morg loved the feel of a book in his hands, loved the pictures books drew inside his head, loved even the smell of paper, and leather binding, and glue. Lord, but it did Virginia’s heart good to watch that child with a book, his solid little body almost motionless while his mind traveled. And she admired the way Morgan helped Wyatt with his lessons instead of making fun of him, like the older boys did.” (Page 129)
Russell makes this love of books and reading a key characteristic of several characters, in fact, as Morgan, Doc, and Kate talk books and literature, and even read the great Russian novelists. I think it is safe to say that this is an aspect of their personalities seldom exploited by Hollywood.
Doc, then, is a novel for those who want to learn the truth about Doc Holliday, the Earps, Kate Elder, Dodge City, and Tombstone. If that describes you, this is a book you will not want to miss.
Rated at: 5.0