Doc by Mary Doria Russell


Ever wonder what the Mythic Figures of the American West were really like? were the legendary events of story and song actually as they’re portrayed in story and song? Probably not. Certainly, the Gunfight at the OK Corral wasn’t; it didn’t even take place in the corral in question.

Well educated for the time and place, Southern gentleman John Holliday is diagnosed at 22 with tuberculosis–the disease that killed his mother–at a time when the only known cure for tuberculosis was “a dry climate”. He ends up in Dodge City, Kansas after a failed attempt1 at setting up a dental practice in Texas. Perhaps not surprisingly given the somewhat primitive nature of dental technique in the late 1870s2 in contrast to Holliday’s skill at the gaming table, he can make a far better living dealing faro and playing poker against the youthfully unskilled (at least in cards) cowpokes who come through Dodge during cattle drives. He has an on-again-off-again relationship with Mária Katarina Harony3, a woman of Magyar descent who grew up in pre-revolution Mexico, who had previously supported herself (as so many women did in that time and place) as a lady of negotiable affection4. While Kate returns to that profession frequently for the simple expedient of earning money, she also uses her connections therein to find the highest stakes games for “Doc”.

Things go smoothly enough, for a frontier town, until Johnnie Sanders is found burned to death in the wreckage of a barn conflagration, raising two problems. First, Johnnie is mixed-race, in this case American Indian and African-American. Equally importantly, he was a skilled faro dealer and had been working the tables for some months prior to his death; given his talents and the house odds, he should have had a considerable amount saved…but where is it?

Just a word of warning to fans of Western legends, Mary Doria Russell’s novel Doc is set in the years before the Tombstone showdown when the Earps and “Doc” Holliday were in Dodge City, and skips over the (in)famous shootout at the OK corral. Not surprisingly given the title, the novel concentrates on “Doc” Holliday. There’s a fair bit of gambling, whoring, roistering and [whispers] liquor, as befits a story about the comparatively lawless West shortly after the Civil War, so this might not be suitable for sensitive or youthful readers5. Given the context of the book–a comparatively lawless town comprised largely of men and a few women who braved the travel in order to exploit the men’s loneliness–the book’s quite mild; there’s nothing prurient in Russell’s narrative. …and another warning for fans of Mary Doria Russell’s previous work: this is quite different from her previous works, just in case the Western setting wasn’t enough of a hint. Russell touches on a number of issues in Doc, as she has in previous works: familial relationships, medical treatment, racial perception, religion.

Overall, I’d say it’s a good addition to the literature about legends of the West, and would wholeheartedly recommend it to people who are looking for good books about the “gunslinger” period of the American Western expansion. It’s a novel, and should be read as such, rather than a purely factual biography; anything which involves conversations between historical characters and ascribes thoughts and emotions to said people must be considered fiction rather than truth. I found a few aspects to ring false notes. Doc occasionally sounds shanty Irish than Southern United States, as if Russell couldn’t decide how to transcribe his accent. At a number of points, the author inserts foreshadowing factual statements, presumably drawn from the primary resources she used as background which, unfortunately, jolted me out of enjoying the book for what it is: a well-written work of fiction about a group of factual historical personae.

Web site about Wyatt Earp

1due in no small part to a financial panic at the time
2not to mention that little matter of Holliday’s persistent cough
3whom the locals usually call “Kate”
4with a nod to Terry Pratchett
5or rather those with overly protective parents

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