Book Review: Doc

by Mary Doria Russell
Ballantine Books, 2011
411 pages (paperback)


Everybody loves a good Western. Saddles and saloons, cowboys and chorus girls, longhorns and lawmen, all dust covered and tasting of desperation. Few figures ride taller in these adventures than Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. But who was the real Dr. John Henry Holliday, and how did he come to be in Tombstone on that fateful day in 1881?

Mary Doria Russell rides to the rescue with a deeply felt and richly detailed novel that imaginatively fills in the gaps of Holliday’s known life. Russell replaces our two-dimensional icon of the slow-talkin’, fast-drawin’ gunslinger at the OK Corral with a thoroughly-realized Southern dentist—displaced, disgraced and disappointed—who found his greatest satisfaction in easing the pain of others even as he succumbed to his own. Rather than retelling the Tombstone story, she puts it in context, sets it up, by following Holliday from Georgia to Pennsylvania to Texas to Kansas, as he pursues first his career, then his health, and finally the closest thing he has to family.

Russell’s Doc is educated, arrogant, generous, showy, homesick, tender, self-sabotaging, with a tongue as sharp as his shot. Though he hangs out a shingle in rollicking Dodge City, he is too sick to work much of the time, so he makes his living—and his enemies–at the card tables. He survives by sheer force of will, supplemented by his fiery-tempered companion Kate Harony and his loyal friend Morgan Earp.

It’s his friendship with the big-hearted and energetic Morgan that eventually leads to a relationship of mutual respect with Morg’s big brother Wyatt. And though Doc and Wyatt differ in upbringings, resumes and politics, they both give their best to Dodge for the same reasons, reasons that will lead them out of Dodge and into Tombstone together.

Combining historical figures (like the Earp brothers and their stout-hearted women) with fictional characters (like Jau Dong-Sing, propriet0r of China Joe’s Laundry and Baths), Russell breathes life into the dust and tumbleweed of Dodge. A character list distinguishing the historical from the fictional, a detailed author’s note describing her research, and a well-chosen epigraph—a quote from Hemingway about how “there is always a chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact”—pay respect to Holliday and Earp family history without apologizing for Russell’s empathetic imagination. And unlike many other treatments of Wyatt and Doc, she gives the women in their lives more face time, digging deeper into their struggles and motivations alongside the men.

As at home with Southern gentility as she is with the appetites of trail-riding cowboys, Russell has crafted an entertaining and plausible story about the man who came to be known in Western lore simply as “Doc.”

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