Doc is John Henry Holliday, legendary figure from the old west and most famously remembered for standing with Wyatt, Morgan and Virgil Earp at the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881 as Doc Holliday. All too often fictional accounts of famous people of history tend to be heavy on the fiction and light on the history, but this ain’t so with Doc, the new novel by Mary Doria Russell.
To see how serious Russell treats the history start reading her blog at Starting the Next Novel. Blogs are annoying for reading older posts, but if you start here and read forward with the link at the bottom of the article, you’ll be able to track her comments about writing Doc and the next novel dealing with Wyatt. Russell even took a five day horseback ride that recreates Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Ride. But keep reading her blog and you’ll be charmed by Russell and understand how she put so much biographical research into her fictional character.
Even covering this material in a nonfiction books like The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn it’s very tricky painting a portrait of a real person. History leaves a limited set of facts that’s never enough to be definitive. Like I said in Nonfiction, Fiction, History, Myth and States of Consciousness it’s extremely hard to discern nonfiction from fiction, and history from myth but Mary Doria Russell makes a climbing Mt. Everest effort to portray John Henry Holliday as fully and accurate as possible in the context of a novel.
I enjoyed this story immensely. I’ve read many books and seen many movies about Doc Holliday and the Earps and Russell’s picture of them in 1878 Dodge City is nothing less than brilliant – not in the Einstein way of thinking, but in the way the Harry Potter kids use the term. I have no idea how true this story is, but it feels right. At worst I’d say she worked too hard to make Doc likable, and even elegant and tragic. She elevates Morgan over Wyatt, but history has favored Wyatt because he survived. I do believe Russell is right in suggesting that Doc was mainly Morgan’s friend, and after Morgan was killed and his murdered avenged, Doc didn’t have much reason to stick with Wyatt.
Now if you’re not caught up in the mania for Tombstone and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral you might not give a fig about this book. It is a well written western that stands on its own even if you aren’t caught up in the history, but I think you’ll at least need to love western movies to enjoy this book. And I love westerns. And this was one of my favorite books of 2011.
JWH – 1/2/12