by Mary Doria Russell
To most people Doc Holliday is an infamous character from the Wild West who was immortalized by his actions during the shootout at the O.K. Corral. He’s been portrayed in countless films as a witty, but dangerous man. Russell’s novel strips away the exaggerations and reveals an incredible man with a depth and charm that knew no bounds.
If you pick this one up to read about Tombstone you’re sure to be disappointed. The story barely makes it into these pages, which is just as well. As much as I love the movie Tombstone, I was more curious about the real men and their stories outside of that single event. After we learn a bit about Doc’s childhood and his early diagnosis of Tuberculosis, we head west away from his Georgian roots. The bulk of the book takes places in Dodge City where Doc and the Earp brothers first met.
I read Russell’s unique and enthralling novel The Sparrow a couple years ago and though the premise is completely different, it contains the same style of writing. The author has an incredible talent for making each character feel like someone you know personally. In this book she carries you into the Wild West with her descriptions of dusty saloons and small town politics. People drink whiskey like it’s water and poker games are a nightly occurrence.
Her research is obvious, but she blends those facts with a wonderful narrative to create an irresistible story. She uncovers the man behind the myth and what you find is something even more interesting that the bigger than life gunmen. Doc was clever and kind, a true southern gentleman. Each of the conversations he has, both with friends and foes alike, are chess games. He was always thinking ahead to the next move. He was a dentist and a diplomat, a devoted friend and a pianist. His health was a constantly struggle, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing what he loved.
In addition to the title character, we get to meet Wyatt Earp and his brothers. They were all interesting, but Wyatt set himself apart with his strict moral code and stubborn nature. His turbulent childhood and the experience of becoming a widower at a young age only reinforced his private nature. Despite that he had a moral compass that most men lack and he gained the respect of the men who knew him because of it.
There are two scenes that were particularly memorable. One was a wake that Doc hosted for a young man in Dodge City. A strange, eclectic group gathers and has the most interesting discussions, all while waiting for their host to appear. There's a mild-mannered priest, a prostitute, an Irish theatrical performer, and more. The tension builds as we wait to meet Doc, an elusive figure up to that point. The second scene revolves around a newly tuned piano on a bittersweet night. Neither scene is crucially important to the story, it’s just a testament to Russell’s skill as an author that she can craft such unforgettable passages.
BOTTOM LINE: A treat from start to finish. If you already love Russell’s work, or if you love historical fiction or Tombstone or the Wild West, or just a great novel, this one is for you!
“We are none of us born into Eden," Doc said reasonably. "World's plenty evil when we get here. Question is, what's the best way to play a bad hand?"
“Home," he said softly. "If there is a more beautiful word in any language, I do not know it.”
p.s. This was one of the best audiobooks I think I have ever listened to. I’d highly recommended it if you’re an audiobook listener.