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Doc Holliday. To most of us, it’s a name out of legend. The Wild West. The Shootout at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp. But there’s a real man behind the myth and in this work of fiction, author Mary Doria Russell tries to find him.
I must admit upfront that the O.K. Corral, etc. is not much more than a name to me. I’ve never seen Wyatt Earp or Tombstone or any of those movies. (I have, apparently, seen enough in channel surfing that I could not for the life of me get Kevin Costner’s image out of my head as I read about Wyatt. And now that I’ve looked up Tombstone I see why Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer kept making appearances in my imagination too).
That said, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I was a little taken aback at first by the style. It reads very much like nonfiction but the author says straight up at the beginning that it’s not. I kept thinking that I was reading a nonfiction prologue and the story would begin later. But eventually I realized it was just the style of the book so I settled in and got comfortable. It worked. Telling the story in that way made Doc seem like more of a real person. The legend doesn’t need more layers. This was a stripping away to get at the man underneath. And I liked him. A lot.
The cards are stacked against him from the beginning. Born with a cleft palate before the Civil War, he shouldn’t have stood a chance. But his family came through and shaped him to be a Southern gentleman. His uncle operated and corrected the palate. His mother taught him manners and music. A cousin taught him horsemanship and how to choose his battles. A–friend? illegitimate cousin? I can’t remember–taught him how to play cards and win. Then he had to watch his beloved mother die of tuberculosis, or consumption as they called it back then. And then he started coughing too. And so he was set on the path that would define him forever after.
The Doc in these pages is not perfect by any means. But that’s part of his charm. He drinks too much and gambles too much and takes unnecessary risks and is too stubborn for his own good. But he’s a loyal friend and a gentleman. He tries to treat everyone with respect if they deserve it. He’s equally kind to the respectable townsfolk and to the town prostitutes, the Chinese man who does his laundry, and the Native American teen who does odd jobs for everyone. He has a vicious temper that he tries to keep under control and mostly succeeds in doing. But those who see flashes of it never forget it. He has a real musical talent but he refuses to play on an out-of-tune piano. When he finally does play, he moves his audience to tears.
He’s caught in a tumultuous relationship with a prostitute named Kate. They need each other but they’re not good for each other. They say hurtful things and hurl accusations and break up and get back together and are on a constant roller-coast ride. They’re exhausting. There’s one scene where the author imagines how different Doc’s life might have been if he had finally left Kate for good and met a “nice girl.” It was bittersweet. I was firmly attached to Doc at this point and I wanted him to have this gentle life. But the author points out that he still would have had consumption, so in the end, nothing would really change.
This Doc Holliday probably still isn’t like the real Doc, but he’s closer than most other books are going to show him at this point. He’s a true Southern gentleman doing his best with the lousy hand he’s been dealt.
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I have an affiliate relationship with Malaprop’s, my local independent bookstore located in beautiful downtown Asheville, NC; and Better World Books. I will receive a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase books through links on my site. My opinions are completely my own.