Book Quote:

“Things happened. He reacted. Sometimes he took a rebellious pride in the cold-blooded courage of certain unconsidered deeds; just as often, he repented of his rashness afterward. There is, for example, nothing quite like lying in a widening pool of your own blood to make you reconsider the wisdom of challenging bad-tempered men with easy access to firearms.”

Book Review:

Review by Kirsten Merrihew В (MAY 24, 2011)

Doc relates how it might have been during 1878-79 when Dr. John Henry Holliday lived in Dodge City, Kansas. “The Deadly Dentist” who later gained fame or infamy, depending on perspective, for “pistoleering” along with the surviving Earp brothers at the O.K. Corral, saved Wyatt Earp’s life in Dodge first. Earp is said to have credited Holliday with saving him, but apparently didn’t share details, so history isn’t sure of the facts. But this novel presents its own story of how it might have happened.

While in Dodge, Holliday also met “Big Nose Kate,” who would become his common law wife. As for earning a living, his ability to practice his profession was limited by the chronic, wracking cough of his consumption (tuberculosis) — few wanted their faces so close to his, but Doc imagines scenes in which Holliday gets Wyatt into his chair and fixes the other man’s supposedly marred smile for him. To afford his fancy clothes, a long residence in the best rooms of the local hotel, and additional high-spending habits, Doc (as he told folks to call him) dealt faro and took part in other high-stakes card games at night. He’d come West from his native Georgia in hopes that the drier air would improve his lungs, but the dust irritated them further and he drank bourbon in large quantities to “calm” his coughing, often imbibing to drunken unpredictability. A cultured Southern gentleman by upbringing, Doc allowed the coarseness of the West to shape his habits to a degree, developing even before he arrived in Dodge, a shady reputation. But he also retained an appreciation for literature and music, and this novel portrays him as a man concerned with justice for all, even a Chinese…and young black man whose suspicious death Doc was determined to lay on someone’s moral account.

Author Mary Doria Russell, best known so far for her philosophical science fiction hit, The Sparrow, uses her prodigious talents for clear and sometimes very beautiful prose to speculate on a very different subject, but just as she brought readers into Father Emilio Sandoz’s reality, she now brings us into Doc Holliday’s happenstance. Clearly, Russell would like to dispel some of Doc’s outlaw reputation, for she writes on the first page of the first chapter,

“At thirty, he would be famous for his part in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. A year later, he would become infamous when he rode at Wyatt Earp’s side to avenge the murder of Wyatt’s younger brother Morgan. To sell newspapers, the journalists of his day embellished thin facts with fat rumor and rank fiction; it was they who invented the iconic frontier gambler and gunman Doc Holliday. (Thin. Mustachioed. A cold and casual killer. Doomed and always dressed in black as though for his own funeral).”

As though to balance the scales, Russell’s story quotes a hotel bellhop in Glenwood Springs where Doc Holliday died in November, 1887 at age 36: “We all liked him. He bore his illness with fortitude, and he was grateful for the slightest kindness. Doc was a very fine gentleman, and he was generous when he tipped.”

In her concluding Author’s Note, Russell takes on the obvious question: “Arriving at the end of historical fiction today, the modern reader is likely to wonder, ‘How much of that was real?’ In this case, the answer is not all of it but a lot more than you might think.” That sounds reassuring. However, the fact is that Doc begins Holliday’s life by proposing an historically questioned premise, namely that he was born with a cleft palate and that his physician uncle repaired the outer damage when John Henry was only two months old. Some historians insist that such an operation successfully concluded at such a tender age would have made medical journals. However, no record can be found, so they doubt the veracity of the claim. Some even doubt that Doc ever had a cleft palate at all because pictures of him as an adult, sans moustache, don’t reveal an upper lip scar. So, one can wonder whether Russell decided to use disputed biographical “facts” in order to create more sympathy for the man or to at least portray him with one more strike against him than he actually overcame when she writes he learned to speak properly despite the unrepaired split palate inside his mouth.

For its own reasons, Doc also may have misrepresented Holliday’s long-term but intermittent lover, Mary Katherine Harony ( aka “Kate Elder” or “Big Nose Kate”) as a prostitute. According to some historians, there is no real proof that Harony was. Perhaps, she might have been mistaken for another hooker Kate in town. Or, she could have been cat house madam without herself servicing the customers. Or, she may have been a working girl for a time and then given it up. No one seems certain. Perhaps Russell chooses to make her an “independent” prostitute even during her up/down relationship with Doc to, in part, illustrate further the egalitarian side of Holliday that the author also brings out in other ways. Regardless, this novel seeks to portray the “seedy” sex trade of the West in a softer light, expressing a sense of empathy for the women who made their way in life by selling their bodies (after all, few other opportunities were open to unmarried women out West). The reader gets to understand Russell’s version of Kate and see why she vacillated between Doc and other men. One reason is that Doc couldn’t hold onto his earnings, and Kate felt the need to have her own stream of income. Whatever the truth, Russell shows a Kate who kept coming back to Doc:

“…She knew how to calm him after the dream, how to steady him while he coughed until his throat was raw and his chest burned. She knew how much bourbon was enough to help him catch his breath, and she knew how to make him forget, for a time, his mother’s illness and his own.

“Afterward, she always asked, ‘I’m a good woman to you, ain’t I, Doc?’ He always agreed. When he fell asleep again, she felt the satisfaction of a job well done.”

Doc isn’t just about Holliday and Kate (who, it must be included, like Holliday, was educated in the classics and languages, and that may have been her greatest attraction for the dentist/gambler/gunfighter — she could stimulate his mind too). The novel provides an overview of many of the residents of Dodge: the lawmen, the politicians, the men of commerce, the non-whites, a few Jesuits, the women, the toll gate family, the horses, etc., giving the reader a peek into this rough-and-tumble western town. This fictive recreation is a strong point of the book as we see the complex social, economic, and political pressures that made law and order elusive and justice raw and hard.

The other strength is the novel’s humanizing of Doc Holliday. Although, as mentioned, history can’t provide us with material to back up all of Russell’s contentions, still it is fascinating to see the seemingly contradictory character she presents: a man who stubbornly struggled against his lung disease for 15 years before finally being overcome, a man who didn’t usually start gun fights but would finish them, a man who played heavenly music on pianos when they were tuned correctly, a thoughtful man concerned with justice, a man who was fast with a gun.

However, the novel’s concentration on Doc’s time in Dodge also has its downside. The reader should not expect any in-depth retelling of the Tombstone confrontation or Doc’s subsequent ride by Wyatt Earp’s side. Russell deals with the early and later parts of Holliday’s life in quick packages at the beginning and end of the book, and the bulk of the narrative tends to get a little repetitive as Doc went about his gambling, coughing, a dab of dentistry, fighting with Kate, etc. There is some plot, but arguably there could have been more had Russell permitted herself to begin in earnest in Dodge and then move on to Tombstone and beyond.

Doc is a novel I’ll remember because it describes the Wild West and its survivalist mentality while also illuminating the civilized, decent motivations and actions that those who came to live there brought with them and did not surrender. Violence by nature and man was a fact of life, but human kindness, honor, and sacrifice shone through too. Doc Holliday was a suffering man who adapted somewhat awkwardly to the West, but he did retain some of the gentlemanly, cultural roots his mother had instilled in him. Russell’s Doc is a product of her imagination, but the author may have come closer to his true self than others — biographers, filmmakers, novelists — have.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 285 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House; First Edition edition (May 3, 2011)
REVIEWER: Kirstin Merrihew
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Mary Doria Russell
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

And another Western character reimagined in fiction:

  • Etta by Gerald Kolpan




May 24, 2011 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  В· Posted in: Facing History, US Frontier West, Wild West

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