Thanks go to my friend K.C. for recommending this book. Writing a very interesting tale of a tragic life, Mary Doria Russell does a good job of staying true to the facts while fictionalizing what she can’t know in Doc, the story of Dr. John Henry (Doc) Holliday.
Russell begins with Holliday as a young boy, delicate, raised as a Southern gentleman and educated by his mother. Although he is frail, he shows much promise for his intelligence, grace, and wit, but his chances are hurt first by the Civil War, which ruins his wealthy family, then by the tragedy of his mother’s death caused by sickness and starving, and finally by tuberculosis.
Already by the time he sets off in his early 20’s for Dallas to work in a dentistry practice, he is ill. Shortly after he arrives, a major collapse in the world economy causes him to lose his job and casts him adrift to live as best he can. Gambling and the hope of starting his own practice bring him to Dodge City, and the Earps bring him to Tombstone for the famous gunfight.
Russell does a great job of depicting Doc: a soft-spoken gentleman with a wicked tongue, generous to his friends, profligate with his money, a fine pianist, and patient with his rapacious prostitute mistress Kate, who also fell far from a proud background.
Russell also fills out the characters of the Earps, especially happy, kind Morgan and the rather thick-headed, upright Wyatt. Bat Masterson appears as self-aggrandizing, responsible for falsely depicting Doc in the media as a hardened killer.
Russell’s approach is a little disorienting. She periodically changes her narrative style to sound more like an old codger telling a yarn and at other times sounds like she is writing a nonfiction biography. It is hard to tell whether she makes these style shifts purposely or has trouble removing herself from her source material. Although most of the book is chronological, she occasionally plays with time by going back to tell about a character’s earlier life.
Overall, Doc is a sympathetic, involving effort.