Monday, September 14, 2015

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

Although I cannot speak for the last generation or two, I think that it is still safe to say that most Americans have been, at the very least, exposed to the idea of the mythic "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral."  Most probably even think that they understand what happened in Tombstone, Arizona, on that fateful day and believe that it was all a well-planned conflict by the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday to take down a bunch of local bad guys.  Well, boys and girls, Mary Doria Russell has written just the book to show you just how wrong you are about why that thirty-second gunfight really happened - and just how tragic the whole affair was for everyone involved.

Russell's Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral, which begins approximately two years before October 26, 1881, is a well-researched historical novel that digs deeply into the character and past of the main players in the brief drama.  The book explains, though, not just who these dozen or so people were; it delves into why they were in Tombstone in the first place and how their paths crossed many, many times before the afternoon that suddenly left three drunks dead and three  lawmen severely wounded.  The short-lived violence was so devastating, in fact, that other than the unarmed man who was allowed to run away from the fight, Wyatt Earp was the only man still on his feet when the shooting stopped. 

So what caused the confrontation?  Why were the Earps and Doc Holliday so ready to rush into a fight that could so easily cost them their lives?  Did the immediate "crime" (their insistence in wearing their pistols inside Tombstone city limits) of those they being confronted justify such a violent clash?  Who fired the first shot and why? 

Epitaph is both an edifying and entertaining look into the single gunfight that would come to represent the "frontier justice" of the 1880s for decades to come.  The whole O.K. Corral myth soon took on a life of its own, in fact, that had very little to do with the reality of the situation.  The fight was much more a tragedy than an arrest gone badly with the "good guys" coming out on top.  As Russell puts it in her two-page introduction to Epitaph, it changed the lives of the survivors forever because, for the participants:

            "Whether you live another five minutes or another fifty years, those awful thirty seconds will become a private eclipse of the sun, darkening every moment left to you.  You will be cursed with a kind of immortality. Year after year, everything that did and did not happen during those thirty seconds of confusion and noise, smoke and pain, will be analyzed and described and disputed.

            A century will pass, and decades more.  Still, the living will haunt the dead as that half-minute becomes entertainment for hundreds of millions around the world.  Long after you die, you will be judged by those who cannot imagine six paces from armed and angry men."

Author Mary Doria Russell
Sadly enough, there was nothing particularly heroic about the Earps, Doc Holliday, or anyone who played even a minor role in what happened in Tombstone on October 26, 1881.  The Earps were, in reality, little more than a product of their times: a close family trying to make its way in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Wyatt was the presumed leader of the pack, and his brothers were perfectly willing to follow his lead when it came to moneymaking schemes that could possibly put the family in the black for good.  Their wives (and mistresses) went along for the ride.  The Earps ended up in Tombstone simply because, as usual, Wyatt was looking to make a quick buck.  And, as a man with no real family of his own, Doc Holliday, ever loyal to the Earp brothers, joined them in Tombstone for no other reason than to fix an aching tooth in Wyatt Earp's mouth. 

But circumstances (and politics) combined to keep the Earps in Tombstone longer than they had planned to be there.  Wyatt, still hoping to cash in on his lawman experience, kept the clan there long enough for the world as they knew it to end in a storm of bullets.  As it did.

Epitaph is everything that historical fiction should be.  It is detailed, it is well written, and it tells the real story behind the myth - and at 577 pages, it is thorough.  I highly recommend it both to fans of serious westerns and to those who simply want to know "the rest of the story" about what really happened near the O.K. Corral that day.

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  1. I saw this book on my libraries New Release shelf a couple of weeks ago and picked it up because I had read and enjoyed her previous historical novel 'Doc'.

    The authors ability to weave historical details into the narrative really gives context to the characters motives and actions.

    Although the last years of Wyatt & Josie just about broke my heart.

    1. That part was tough to read, I agree. It's hard to picture someone like Wyatt Earp and his wife ending their days in rather helpless fashion because of poor health and poverty, isn't it? But I suppose that's exactly the situation with so many of today's elderly, too. It's way too easy to forget what amazing lives so many of them lived before reaching the stage they are in now.