Day 410: Inheritance

Cover for Southern Son: InheritanceIt seems extremely difficult to write a novel about an actual historical person. The writer must strike some kind of balance between doing justice to the person and to actual events and inventing details and dialogue to make the novel interesting. As well as having to invent huge swaths of the subject’s life, I am guessing that the author sometimes has to struggle with whether to include all the known events, especially if they don’t fit in with the author’s view of the subject’s character.

Inheritance, the first book of a trilogy about John Henry (Doc) Holliday, shows evidence of a great deal of research. It begins when Holliday is ten years old, shortly before he finds out his mother is dying from tuberculosis, or consumption. The novel follows his life until his departure from his home state of Georgia for Texas when he is twenty-one.

The engaging Doc by Mary Doria Russell, which I read a few years ago, revealed Holliday as a much-misunderstood individual, demonstrating how his reputation as a gunslinger was exaggerated by the press from a few incidents, showing his innate courtesy and all his contradictions. Despite its obvious intentions, Inheritance had the opposite effect on me, at times making me lose a considerable amount of my sympathy for him.

One false step is taken, I think, by starting the story so early in his life. He is supposed to gain our sympathy as a motherless boy with a stiff and judgmental father, but the depiction of children in this novel is not convincing. In fact, at the beginning of the novel I was troubled by flat characterization, as most of the main characters’ relatives and acquaintances have only one quality. His cousin Robert is competitive, his mother and cousin Mattie are loving, and so on. Only very slowly do some of the characters develop a few other dimensions.

The novel is written in a workmanlike style, a little too given to clichés, but certainly fluent enough except for a tendency to use “refugee” as a verb. There is some evidence of this usage as a colloquialism, especially during the Civil War, but it is used here in the narrative as well as in the dialogue.

Although the point of view appears to be third-person limited, at times it slips into third-person omniscient, which causes some confusion and a problem. Certainly, I do not hold with changing a person’s views to make that character more acceptable for the current time. Even when a fictional historical character has too modern a viewpoint, that bothers me. Holliday is definitely depicted as a racist who treats African-American characters even worse than I would expect from a character self-described countless times as a “gentleman.” So, when the reader cannot always discern the attitudes of Holliday from the attitudes of the narrator, the effect is unfortunate.

Overall, Inheritance is a novel that balances a great deal of knowledge of its subject with some inexperience in writing.

I received this book through a giveaway from Unabridged Chick.

13 thoughts on “Day 410: Inheritance

  1. Carolyn O October 16, 2013 / 1:19 pm

    A thorough review! I was thinking about picking up some Western fiction for my husband for Christmas, but given your review I think I’ll pass on this one.

    • whatmeread October 16, 2013 / 1:35 pm

      What kind of westerns does he like? Doc was a much better alternative to Inheritance. True Grit was very good. And for pure escapism, a book called Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker (of mystery fame) was pretty good. Also, I really like the Craig Johnson contemporary mystery series set in Wyoming. See my Westerns link in my Links to Popular Posts for all those reviews.

      • Carolyn O October 16, 2013 / 1:36 pm

        Thanks! He’s not really a reader, but he likes Western movies, so I thought I could tempt him into reading with a subject he’s fond of.

      • whatmeread October 16, 2013 / 1:39 pm

        Then try Appaloosa–short, full of action, with a sort of interesting and believable relationship between two guys who don’t talk very much. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s funny, too. They made a movie of it a few years ago that was very good, starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson. I don’t think anyone went to it.

      • Carolyn O October 16, 2013 / 1:44 pm

        I LOVE the movie!

      • whatmeread October 16, 2013 / 1:45 pm

        Oh, did you see it? That’s what made me get the book.

      • Carolyn O October 16, 2013 / 1:48 pm

        I did. I like modern westerns, and Appaloosa & 3:10 to Yuma are my favorites.

      • whatmeread October 16, 2013 / 1:53 pm

        I haven’t tried that one yet. I watched part of the old 3:10 to Yuma starring Glenn Ford, but thought it was just awful (my husband had been talking it up, but he thought it was awful, too), so we didn’t try the newer version. Maybe put it on our Netflix list. Speaking of books set in the west, although not strict a western, I guess, but more about small-town life in the west, Plainsong by Kent Haruf is really excellent, touching with really spare prose. Probably more for you than your husband, this one.

      • Carolyn O October 16, 2013 / 2:07 pm

        I’ll put it on my list! Thanks for the recommendation!

      • Victoria Wilcox October 23, 2013 / 7:00 pm

        Hi Kay. An interesting review of “Inheritance” — glad you recognized the third-person limited pov, but sad that you didn’t realize that I am not the narrator. It’s actually Mattie telling the story, with all her own 19th century biases and limited understandings. Henry isn’t a tyrant and John Henry isn’t a gentleman, but that’s the way John Henry sees things, and thus the way Mattie portrays things. His obvious failings (Mattie calls him arrogant, vain, and selfish — clearly not qualities meant to engender your sympathy, but true to the real man) are trials he must work through to his final redemption. As Wyatt Earp said of him, he was his own worst enemy and not really the victim of his circumstances, although he blames most of his troubles on everyone and everything else. The Holliday I tried to portray was the one his family knew as a boy, a teen, and a man — not the legend in retrospect that most other authors (including the talented Mary Doria Russell) paint. And how does one tell the story of a boy growing up during the Civil War without including the Civil War? “Inheritance” is not a Western and was never meant to be. It’s a Southern coming-of-age story about a Western legend. And you are right about the use of “refugee” as a verb. Southerners refugeed ahead of the Yankee army, ahead of bad crops, ahead of government control. They still do. The book is full of things that may sound odd to Northern ears, but are very true to Georgia. Sorry you were disappointed in this first installment of “Southern Son” and hope you will find more to like about the continued story. Best, Victoria

      • whatmeread October 24, 2013 / 7:41 am

        Well, that’s a surprise. It wasn’t clear at all that the story was from Mattie’s point of view. It seemed to alternate between Holliday himself and an omniscient point of view, as I said. I didn’t really think that Mary Doria Russell portrayed him as the legend, either, but as a complex person, and also as his worst enemy.

  2. Victoria Wilcox October 24, 2013 / 4:45 pm

    I’m sure my response was a surprise! Somehow, people think writers aren’t interested in reading review blogs, but I am. And yours is quite nice. In the original version of the story, Mattie is introduced in a Prologue, and it’s clear she’s the narrator. The Editor felt the Prologue distracted from John Henry’s story, and that Mattie’s voice came through clearly enough in the direct narration — or at least as someone from that era who would know such things personally. It’s Mattie’s voice in Books Two and Three, as well, relating things as John Henry told her or as she imagined them. She does come back personally in Book Three and an Epilogue, which also brings Margaret Mitchell into the story. As I said, it’s a family tale told by family members. And I join you in not having much sympathy for the character of John Henry. I wanted to slap him many times, but couldn’t be true to his real self if I left you liking him throughout his troubles. His own family sometimes detested him. As for being a gentleman… In his time and place, a man was a gentleman because of his class and standing, not his manners. He could be quite incourteous and still be considered a gentleman. He could, indeed, be a killer yet still be a gentleman. At least, that was the way John Henry understood things — again, his perceptions were so skewed. That becomes more apparent in the next two books. Hope you will read more and give me your unvarnished opinion! I enjoy the dialogue! Best, Victoria

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