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Book Cover Image: Doc by Mary Doria RussellTitle: Doc

Author: Mary Doria Russell

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):

“The year is 1878, peak of the Texas cattle trade. The place is Dodge City, Kansas, a saloon-filled cow town jammed with liquored-up adolescent cowboys and young Irish hookers. Violence is random and routine, but when the burned body of a mixed-blood boy named Johnnie Sanders is discovered, his death shocks a part-time policeman named Wyatt Earp. And it is a matter of strangely personal importance to Doc Holliday, the frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who has just opened an office at No. 24, Dodge House.

Beautifully educated, born to the life of a Southern gentleman, Dr. John Henry Holliday is given an awful choice at the age of twenty-two: die within months in Atlanta or leave everyone and everything he loves in the hope that the dry air and sunshine of the West will restore him to health. Young, scared, lonely, and sick, he arrives on the rawest edge of the Texas frontier just as an economic crash wrecks the dreams of a nation. Soon, with few alternatives open to him, Doc Holliday is gambling professionally; he is also living with Mária Katarina Harony, a high-strung Hungarian whore with dazzling turquoise eyes, who can quote Latin classics right back at him. Kate makes it her business to find Doc the high-stakes poker games that will support them both in high style. It is Kate who insists that the couple travel to Dodge City, because “that’s where the money is.”

And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp really begins—before Wyatt Earp is the prototype of the square-jawed, fearless lawman; before Doc Holliday is the quintessential frontier gambler; before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology—when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety.”

Thoughts: I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Ms. Russell speak last October at the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association’s trade show. She freely admitted that she had developed a crush on John Henry Holliday and gave many reasons for why she did so. After reading Doc, one understands exactly why she was so giddy. It is definitely deserved.

Through extensive research, including learning how to ride horses, read Greek and Latin, and play classical piano, Ms. Russell dispels all legends and exaggerations told about Doc Holliday and instead shows him to be the well-educated southern gentleman and trained dentist that somehow never gets mentioned in retellings of the story of the O.K. Corral. His struggles to combat his tuberculosis and eventual career as a professional gambler get particular attention. Focusing on his childhood and life prior to moving to Tombstone, AZ, the reader gets a comprehensive picture of the man behind the myth, as well as realizing just how much myth there is around the man.

Holliday’s story is one of tragedy. Born right before the Civil War into southern gentility, he watched his life turn upside with the coming of the War. His beloved mother died shortly thereafter. Just as he was about ready to start life on his own at age 21, he was given a death sentence in the form of a diagnosis of tuberculosis – the same thing that killed his mother. Fleeing the humid climate of his home prolonged his life, but it also filled him with a profound sense of loneliness and of desolation that he combated, along with his disease, for the rest of his life.

Ms. Russell’s words bring the man to life in a way that is just as vivid as any movie. His southern gentility, wit and grace leap off the page, and a reader is left wanting to be a better person if only because JHH remained one in spite of his slow, agonizing death and rough lifestyle. The poignancy of his relationship with Morgan and with Kate brings another facet to the man, as they become the family he so desperately misses. While this is a work of fiction, there is more history than fiction, and Ms. Russell does an excellent job of not only showing which characters are real and which are not but of blending the two seamlessly. For fans of historical fiction, Doc is definitely this spring’s must-read.

Thank you to Ms. Russell and GLiBA for my advanced copy!

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