Review: Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

epitaph by mary doria russellFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 592 pages
Publisher: Ecco
Date Released: March 3, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

A deeply divided nation. Vicious politics. A shamelessly partisan media. A president loathed by half the populace. Smuggling and gang warfare along the Mexican border. Armed citizens willing to stand their ground and take law into their own hands…

That was America in 1881.

All those forces came to bear on the afternoon of October 26th when Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers faced off against the Clantons and the McLaurys in Tombstone, Arizona. It should have been a simple misdemeanor arrest. Thirty seconds and thirty bullets later, three officers were wounded and three citizens lay dead in the dirt.

Wyatt Earp was the last man standing, the only one unscathed. The lies began before the smoke cleared, but the gunfight at the O.K. Corral would soon become central to American beliefs about the Old West.

Epitaph tells Wyatt’s real story, unearthing the Homeric tragedy buried under 130 years of mythology, misrepresentation, and sheer indifference to fact. Epic and intimate, this novel gives voice to the real men and women whose lives were changed forever by those fatal 30 seconds in Tombstone. At its heart is the woman behind the myth: Josephine Sarah Marcus, who loved Wyatt Earp for forty-nine years and who carefully chipped away at the truth until she had crafted the heroic legend that would become the epitaph her husband deserved.

My Review:

Epitaph is the story behind 30 seconds in the 19th century American West that live in myth and legend. 30 seconds that haunt the remaining years of the last survivor well into the 20th.

doc by maria doria russellWhere the absolutely marvelous Doc (reviewed here) relates the story of John Henry “Doc” Holliday in the years before he and the Earp Brothers, found themselves in Tombstone, Epitaph becomes, quite literally, the epitaph of Wyatt Earp, the last survivor of that bloody half-minute.

The title is also a terribly fitting pun. The Tombstone Arizona newspaper that covered the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral most insistently, and whose editor helped to incite the shootout, was the Tombstone Epitaph. Because, as the masthead famously stated, “Every Tombstone needs an Epitaph.”

The story of the famous gunfight, as told in this account, seems like layer upon layer of competing “spin”, culminating in a mostly fictionalized quasi-biography of Wyatt Earp that was published as fact during the Depression, over 50 years after the events.

Although it claimed to be based on Wyatt Earp’s recollections, it was probably mostly made up by the author, Stuart Lake. But it, and the movie based on it, and the TV show based on that, turned out to be not just perfect for the Depression, but also eventually perfect for the fledgling TV industry.

We’ll get back to that.

Most of the book is about the Earps’ and Doc Holliday’s, unfortunate decision to move to Tombstone and the two years worth of catastrophes that followed. Tombstone was a boomtown, with all of the lawlessness that name implies. The Earps, as a group, tended to become sheriffs or deputies or otherwise be on the side of law and order. They enforced the law so that some order could be maintained.

It was what they had done in Dodge City, but it turned out disastrously for them in Tombstone.

The opposition, not just in the gunfight but in the years previously, was a group that called themselves “Cow-boys”. These were not working cowhands, or ranchers. This was a group of men that made their living by stealing cows from across the Mexican border, and from other Arizona ranches, and then re-selling them to the Army or to the silver mines. They raped, murdered and generally pillaged, but Tombstone could never manage to convict any of them of anything.

They had bought off the judges, and terrorized the townspeople. No one stood against them, except the Earps. And that stand is what eventually got everyone involved killed. Some at the gunfight, but most in revenge afterwards.

After all of the dust had finally settled, months and multiple conflicting accounts later, Wyatt was the only survivor. The last third of the book is about Wyatt’s journey after his friends, his brothers and his enemies had died – many of the enemies at his own hand.

His story starts in one last reach for glory, and ends in obscurity.

Escape Rating B: I absolutely loved Doc, and was hoping for more of the same in Epitaph. While I enjoyed Epitaph, it didn’t work as well for me as Doc.

Partly it’s that we know more about the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, even if what we know is wrong. We all have a pretty good idea of how this story is going to end, even if we don’t know the details of how they get there.

Because Doc takes place earlier, the devastating ending is still in the shadows, we don’t have to confront it. At the same time Doc Holliday is different character than Wyatt Earp. Doc was educated and especially articulate. He was also fully conscious of the ironies of his situation. His head is a more interesting perspective. And Doc’s story is going to end in tragedy no matter what happens – there was no effective treatment for tuberculosis in the 1870’s.

A lot of the story in Tombstone involves the lining up of the various factions. No one involved on either side seems to have been telling much of the truth, or even much of a consistent story. What we do see is the lining up of the “town” faction, always on the side of at least some kind of order, if not exactly law, and the ranchers on the opposite side who saw town as a place to cut loose, no matter how violently, when they wanted to let off a little steam. They did not want the town’s need for rules or law to impinge on their fun, or on their rights in the territorial legislature.

In some ways, it is easy to see the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as one of the last signposts on the history of the end of the “Wild West”. While the initial picture is very confused, and both sides go on a spree of killing vengeance, in the end, civilization wins.

The focus of the story before the fight is on the Earps, and Doc by extension. We get involved in all of their lives, and come to understand just how they ended up where and how they did. But there is a lot of foreshadowing in the beginning of the story, and it feels heavy-handed. So heavy-handed that it breaks the fourth wall, and feels as though the author is speaking directly to the reader rather than telling the story.

The end felt dragged out. The last third of the book is Wyatt and his wife Josie’s journey all over the West, trying to find a place to settle and outrun or outlive his notoriety. It is both sad and anticlimactic, as Wyatt dies broke and Josie descends into dementia. That Wyatt’s history is whitewashed and reborn on TV is not something that either of them lives to see, even though the sanitized version is the one that Josie always wanted to be told.

Reviewer’s note: My first conscious exposure to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a very bad Star Trek episode, Spectre of the Gun. In the episode, the Enterprise crew take the places of the Cow-boys, who in history were the villains of the piece. In the illusion they are stuck in, circumstances as somewhat otherwise. Of course.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

doc by maria doria russellFormat read: ebook borrowed from the library
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: historical fiction
Length: 394 pages
Publisher: Random House
Date Released: May 3, 2011
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

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 Maria 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. Authentic, moving, and witty, Mary Doria Russell’s fifth novel redefines these two towering figures of the American West and brings to life an extraordinary cast of historical characters, including Holliday’s unforgettable companion, Kate. First and last, however, “Doc “is John Henry Holliday’s story, written with compassion, humor, and respect by one of our greatest contemporary storytellers.

My Review:

I’m having a difficult time starting my review for this book. It is one of those stories that I suspect people will either love or hate. I loved it. I also got so immersed in it that I’m having a hard time stepping back from it.

Book hangover, anyone?

The book is a fictionalized version of the life of John Henry Holliday, much, much better known as “Doc” Holliday. And even though the event that made him life in the legends of the American West is the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, this book doesn’t get that far in Doc’s relatively short life.

epitaph by maria doria russellThat part of the story is coming in Epitaph, which has probably just moved up my reading schedule a couple of months. Even though I know perfectly well how it ends. Doc, at least, is a book where the journey is much more interesting than the destination.

The story in Doc feels like it is more about the way that Holliday became involved with the Earp brothers (Wyatt, Morgan, James and Virgil) than about any possible gunslinging. Not that Doc seems to have done anywhere near as much of that as legend makes out.

Doc Holliday was mostly two things in Dodge City, Kansas where this part of his story (and theirs) takes place. In his own mind, first he was a dentist. He was no quack, either. He earned that title, “Doc” at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. He graduated as D.D.S., Doctor of Dental Surgery, in 1872.

People didn’t like to visit the dentist in 1872 any more than they did in 1972, or possibly 2072. In the very wild Western cowtown of Dodge City, Doc earned his living as a gambler. Which was a considerably more respectable occupation than it is today.

There was one other thing about Doc Holliday which affected his whole short and often unhappy life. He contracted tuberculosis in his early 20s, and spent the rest of his short life staving off his early death.

He moved west from the Atlanta area in the hopes that the hot dry summers would be better for him than sticky, wet, muggy Atlanta. No one thought about all the dust. Or that a dentist couldn’t make a living, but a gambler could. But gamblers generally work in smoky saloons late at night, and that wasn’t better at all.

Doc was a cultured and mannered gentleman in a town where cowboys squandered their hard-earned pay in drunken sprees at the ends of months-long cattle drives. He was also a man who simply could not hold his own in a barroom brawl, because he was a tall, skinny man with a death rattle cough that doubled him over on an all too frequent basis.

In this story, we see him coping with increasing debilities as the disease steals his life an inch at a time. We also see all the lives that he touched in Dodge, especially the Earp brothers. Wyatt Earp tried his hand at being a standup, unbought lawman in a town where everything was for sale. As the place started to become more civilized by Eastern standards, Wyatt made himself some backers among the reform-minded people, and made enemies of the saloon and brothel owners who held all the money in town.

Doc both saved his life, and fixed his teeth. The Earps saw Doc as another brother. Which is part of the reason they all ended up in Tombstone in 1881. The friendship that they formed in Dodge City put them all on a path to legend and myth.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that consistently surprises you during this story is just how young they all were. We think of them as grizzled veterans, but all of them, Holliday, the Earp Brothers, and even Bat Masterson were all in their mid-to-late 20s when this story takes place, and not much older at the famous gunfight in 1881. The legends all came much later, when they were old, or dead.

As I read, Doc reminded me of both Lonesome Dove and Deadwood, which I realize is probably an odd combination.

lonesome doveI’m not just including Lonesome Dove because it is also a big, sprawling Western, or at least is set during this same time period of U.S. western expansion, but because of the way that both stories bring every single character to life and immerse the reader in a way of life that the characters love but know is passing.

The Earps are mostly itinerant lawmen. Many of their wives were prostitutes, or at least had been working girls. There were damn few of what would have been considered “respectable” women around a cattle boom town in the middle of nowhere. No one in this story is a stock character. Every person, not just the Earps and Doc, but all the side characters including all the “soiled doves” have their own story and part to play in the wider narrative.

One of the strongest characters in the book is Kate Harony. She was a prostitute known as Big Nose Kate. She was also the daughter of Hungarian aristocrats who lost power during the Mexican Revolution. In the story (and in real life) she was Doc Holliday’s partner – but he certainly wasn’t keeping her. It seems pretty clear that mostly she was keeping him, and helping to take care of him when his illness flared up.

At the same time, this story reminds me a lot of Deadwood because the powers-that-be, such as they are, are entirely corrupt. Not necessarily in the sense that they run businesses that someone might find of questionable morality, but because they bought and sold everyone and everything in their path.

They are also aware that the harbingers of civilization will drive them out sooner or later, so they are always on the lookout for their next big chance to fleece a lot of cowboys and anyone else foolish enough to come under their sway.

So while the story focuses on Doc, there are layers within layers about the life of the town and the slow demise of the frontier that it represents. In the center of the story, Doc is always dying, and always fighting to live the best he can no matter how painful it becomes. And his story is marvelous and heartrending all at the same time.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.