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: The Bees by Laline Paull

bees by laline paullFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: ebook, hardback, paperback, audiobook
Genre: fantasy
Length: 357 pages
Publisher: Ecco
Date Released: May 6, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive’s survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw but her courage and strength are an asset. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect pollen. She also finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous.

But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen’s fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, her society—and lead her to unthinkable deeds.

My Review:

I’m not so sure about the comparison in the blurb to either (or both) The Handmaid’s Tale and The Hunger Games, but if it gets people to read this marvelous book, well, it’s done its job.

The Bees is the story of a rigorously structured society where the obedient survive, everyone has their own place, and deviation, or even curiosity, is usually rewarded with death. And while the author sets the story in a beehive, among, naturally, bees, she’s really talking about us.


Of course, Flora 717 and the other bees in her hive think of themselves as people, too. Everyone else that impinges on their world is either an enemy or a myth. Occasionally both.

Flora 717 is different from the other bees in her hive, who are all her sisters, daughters of the Queen, except for the very few male drones. More on them in a bit.

In a hive, only the Queen can breed. For Flora 717, it is both law and religion, and rigorously enforced by mind-numbing scent trails as well as power-hungry priestesses and ruthless Fertility Police. Flora 717 bumps and bumbles her rather large way into every rule and precept of her restrictive hive.

The hive is a place where the needs of the many are paramount, and the needs of the few or of the one have no meaning at all. There is only supposed to be the hive, and service to it.

Flora 717, as our point of view character, is different from her sisters. Something either went right or wrong in her creation, and she is larger than her sisters, and also more capable. Floras are the lowest of the low, they are the sanitation workers of the hive. They aren’t supposed to think, they aren’t supposed to be able to talk, and they are not supposed to be capable of ANY of the higher functions of the hive.

Flora 717 can not only talk, but she can sense the hive mind directly. She also has the capacity to feed the larvae in the nursery, and she is strong enough to fly out of the hive and forage for food.

The hive is in danger. Not just from possible direct attacks, but also from the changing world outside. Pollution reduces their foraging grounds. Rain makes it impossible for the foragers to even go out and find food. Life in the hive is changing, and not for the better.

As Flora 717 finds herself the object of an experiment (and not killed out of hand as an outlier) she is able to view all of the strata of life in the hive, from her lowly roots as a sanitation worker, to the dangerous and desperate freedom of the foragers.

She even briefly ascends to the heights of attending the Queen.

All of the knowledge and experience she gains makes her a leader among her own lowly Flora sisterhood. And gives her the courage to foment her own, quiet and inexorable, rebellion.

Escape Rating A: The way that the author portrays the hive’s institutions works well both as an explanation of bee behavior and as an ironic send-up of human behavior. The priestesses exploit their religious positions to accumulate power. The fertility police are brute enforcers and thugs.

And the drones, “Their Malenesses” are both funny and tragic. Their purpose in life is to die for the good of the hive. Or some other hive. But until their last, tragic flight to create a queen, they are indulged in their every whim, and their very essence makes the female bees swoon at every turn.

Yet their self-indulgence is so often their undoing, as well as the hive’s.

You wouldn’t think that you could be absolutely riveted by the supposedly proscribed (and short) life of a bee. But the story so cleverly couches real (and bloodthirsty) life in a hive into human terms that we can’t help but root for Flora 717 to survive and find a destiny that seems to be outside the proscriptions.

It both is and isn’t, in the end, but the way that it works provokes satisfaction, the sense that things change, but that it is part of the greater whole. Which for Flora 717, turns out to be as it should be.

***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.