Doc Holliday probably needs no introduction. He’s one of the more mythic figures of the American West–the well-educated, consumptive, Georgia-born dandy, dentist, and gambler/gunfighter who tag-teamed with the Earp Brothers for the Gunfight at the OK Corral in the Arizona boomtown of Tombstone.
Most pop culture depictions of Holliday offer the legend called Doc. Though Mary Doria Russell chose that nickname as the title for her book, her focus is much more on the John Henry Holliday lurking underneath the legend.
This book was suggested to me by Leslie, one of my undergraduate English professors. Last year, she recommended The Hunting Accident to me, and recently, she asked me if I was familiar with Russell’s work. I quickly remedied that oversight, and I am so glad I did. Thanks for the wonderful recommendation, Leslie!
As I’ve established on the blog before, I love a good Western. And Doc certainly is a Western, set in 1878 Dodge City, Kansas. Still, the relative lack of heavy action, the focus on character, and Russell’s effortlessly eloquent prose are probably more reminiscent of historical fiction (with a delightful dash of Doc playing Sherlock Holliday to solve a mysterious death).
Still, the book is a vivid recreation of Dodge when it was the largest, wildest cow town in the West and is one of the more realistic-seeming stories set in the West that I’ve read in awhile. Realism abounds in the atmosphere of Dodge, which struggles with pretensions and delusions of grandeur while also having to acknowledge that their economy exists to cater to rough cowboys at the end of a long cattle drive. And it doesn’t shy away from depicting the messy reality of what it was like to spend years far away from home, dying from a nasty disease that you watched kill your beloved mother. Also spot-on is the post-Civil War political tension that Russell captures well.
Though Doc is the ostensible star of the story, he is hardly the sole focus, and I think that is one of the most surprising strengths of the story. Russell takes breaks from him to get inside the heads of everyone from the Earp brothers to Holliday’s hot-tempered, on-and-off again girlfriend Kate to various people in the town.
No matter how ostensibly boring or annoying I assumed any of these other characters would be, I always enjoyed how insightfully Russell wrote about them. They all had legitimately intriguing hidden depths that made sense and didn’t seem forced. That stands out to me because I often get very frustrated with novels when they veer away from the characters I find interesting, so it was refreshing that I never felt that way reading this book. This broadening of the general focus sharpens Russell’s main theme that life is just like a hand of poker–you have to play the hand you’re dealt, not the one you wanted.
If you like well-researched historical fiction with intriguing characters, definitely give Doc a try. Russell also wrote a follow-up titled Epitaph about the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. I haven’t read it yet but am looking forward to reading (and reviewing) it in the future.
Recommended for those who enjoy the work of Larry McMurtry.
Have you read Doc? What’s your favorite setting for historical fiction? Who is your favorite historical fiction writer? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on this item or to place a hold.