Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

After his death, John Henry Holliday joined a select few who became legends of the American West, men and women whose actual lives are forever altered by the stories, rumors, and outright lies that others told.  In her novel Doc, Mary Doria Russell constructs a more truthful look at J.H. Holliday, the young dentist from an aristocratic Southern family, who makes his way west in an attempt to live life at its fullest before his consumption robs him of all energy and hope.  At age 27, he finds himself in the wild cattle town, Dodge City, where he and his mistress alternate between living a life of momentary luxury and a hard scrabble effort to just survive.  While classified as historical fiction, this book is well researched and told with a masterful touch.

M. D. Russell's flowing narration reveals the complicated contradictions that define "Doc."  The frailness caused by his consumption and the lisp remaining from his childhood cleft palate (one of the first to be successfully surgically repaired) leave him forever self-conscious and may help explain his strong desire to continue his dental practice despite its financial failure and its negative effect on his own health.  Living in one of the most unsophisticated and crude towns in the whole country, "Doc" never leaves behind his love for the finer things, including his great love for European classical music. And while others quickly judge others on their immediate behavior or occupation (prostitute, gambler, or quasi-lawman) or their race (Indian, Negro, mixed), Doc makes no hasty judgments, but instead focuses on what may have led the person to their current life.

As the author tells Doc's story, she is also introducing readers to the back story of the others who will become famous at the OK Corral Shootout - Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and the other Earp Brothers.  I listened to this book, all 16+ hours of it, and felt I learned so much not only about these men and their women, but also about the real west.  This is not the "cleaned-up" west of the small screen or romance novels, nor is it a shoot 'em big screen production which leaves you turning the bad guys into heroes.
Having given readers a more realistic look at the background of Doc, Masterson, and the Earps, Mary Doria Russell purposely ends the book in Dodge, saying that the story of the shootout itself has been told enough times.  However since the release of Doc, the author has been working on a sequel tentatively called Epitaph which will be published in 2014.  I plan to read this follow-up.  Actually, I think I will listen to it.  Some stories just beg to be "told."  Check out Russell's website
for more about the new book and her other writings.

1 comment:

  1. We are heading down to Austin this Friday and our library has the CD of this book. I'm going to get it for our drive. I enjoy anything about Dodge City. We all enjoyed "Devil in the White City" on our way to/from New Orleans at Christmas, from your recommendation. Will let you know what we think. How is your summer shaping up? I'll be coming north, likely in late July unless the folks need me sooner. The other girls are covering the surgery and aftercare and I'm doing check up.