The human lives behind the myths

Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the history of the American west knows the names “Doc Holliday” and “Wyatt Earp.” Some will also know “Bat Masterson,” “Morgan Earp” and “Virgil Earp.” They might know that Wyatt and Morgan worked in Dodge City Kansas before they moved out to Tombstone, and they’ll probably know that Doc was there with them at the OK Corral. But the legends and tall tales that have grown up around these names are barely, if at all accurate, and while that might suit some of them, men like John Henry Holliday — commonly known as “Doc” — deserve better.

Mary Doria Russell has added to the fictions, to be sure, but “Doc” is a novel that feels almost more like a biography than fiction. It follows Holliday’s early life which was marred at birth by a cleft palate. Though the defect was repaired by an uncle who was a fine surgeon, John Henry and his mother worked for years to ensure that he had no speech impediment as a result. His mother devoted so much of her time to him that it caused friction between her and her husband, and when she died of tuberculosis, he remarried quickly, alienating his son who had been devoted to his mother. As a result, John was raised by relatives, and seems to have lived a reasonably happy life with them. Through it all, though, the specter of his mother’s awful death remained fresh and painful not only because of his loss but because he knew he was also tubercular. He had seen his future and it was short and unhappy.

While his ambition was simply to be a good dentist, fate had other ideas. The need for money took him to Kansas (At the urging of his companion, Kate Harony, a young Hungarian prostitute whose family had a place in the court of Maximillian I of Mexico. Fate had other things in store for her, too.) Kansas was where Doc met Morgan Earp, and the man whose name would be more closely linked to that of Holliday’s than any other, Wyatt Earp. The rest, as they say, is history. Except that the history written about these men has been so embellished as to make them larger than life and outside of it. Russell’s story, on the other hand, covers a summer in Dodge — well before the famous events in Tombstone — when they all came to know each other, came to be friends, loved and suffered. It was a time when Doc might have become a successful dentist, defeated the TB and married well. But he did none of those things.

In the end, he died almost alone. Wyatt attended his deathbed, though in truth they were never as close as Doc was with Morgan, who was gunned down in Tombstone as retribution for his part at the corral. What held their relationship together was their love for Morgan Earp, who emerges in this story as a bright, easy-going figure who was well-loved by everyone. In spite of this being Doc’s story, it’s almost as much Morgan’s personality which informs it.

Russell’s writing is lovely. She has an easy style and a way of pulling a 19th C. western sensibility into it without any awkwardness. Her research has been impeccable and where she has changed facts to suit the story, she’s done so intelligently and always for a good and proper reason. If you want to read a very human and humane story of men whose reputations were later inflated to Paul Bunyanesque proportions, this is the book to read. Highly recommended.


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