Sunday, July 17, 2011

Doc

Doc by Mary Doria Russell
Random House Publishing Group, May 2011
Hardcover, 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400068043
very highly recommended
 

Description from cover:
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 M├íria 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.”
My Thoughts:
 
Doc by Mary Doria Russell focuses on the early years of Dr. John Henry (Doc) Holliday, especially the time he spent in Dodge City, Kansas. In the notes at the end of Doc, Mary Doria Russell writes: "Arriving at the end of historical fiction today, the modern reader is likely to wonder, 'How much of that was real?' In this case, the answer is: not all of it but a lot more than you might think."(pg. 391) I appreciate knowing that she did her research and wrote historical fiction that follows historical fact. 
 
Russell starts with Holliday's Georgia childhood through his dental training and the onset of the tuberculosis that sent him out west for his health. She does an excellent job of replacing many of the myths surrounding Doc Holliday with facts and showing us the man behind the legend - his struggles, disappointments, and precarious health. The descriptions of Holliday's struggles with tuberculosis are heart breaking. All the players in the well known story are here, but without the exaggerations found in the myths.
 
As I mentioned, this novel mainly focuses on Doc's time in Dodge City, KS. While the novel does not cover the infamous shot out at the OK Corral, it does briefly cover the end of his life. Anyone hoping for a more complete picture of Doc's whole life, may be disappointed with this. Since I have never been a huge fan of westerns, I thought the novel was brilliant in its focus on the part of Doc's life that set fate into motion and on to Tombstone, Arizona.
 
This is a work of fiction, but Russell includes a cast of "Players" at the beginning of Doc that shows what characters were real and which ones are fictional. The chapters in Doc are named after poker terms, which is clever because poker and faro are a huge part of much of the story.
 
Between the story and the writing, Doc will likely be one of the best novels of the year. This is a perfect example of historical fiction done right.
 
Russell ends the Author's Note section suggesting that readers who are touched by Doc's story should consider giving a donation to one of the organizations around the world that provide free surgical correction of cleft palates and cleft lips. You can follow the link above to Russell's website for information on the Smile Train where she and her husband chose to give a donation.  
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best
 
Quotes:
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
When he arrived in Dodge City in 1878, Dr. John Henry Holliday was a frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who wanted nothing grander than to practice his profession in a prosperous Kansas cow town. Hope – cruelest of the evils that escaped Pandora’s box – smiled on him gently all that summer. While he lived in Dodge, the quiet life he yearned for seemed to lie within his grasp.
At thirty, he would be famous for his part in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. A year later, he would become infamous when he rode at Wyatt Earp’s side to avenge the murder of Wyatt’s brother Morgan. The journalists of his day embellished slim fact with fat rumor and rank fiction; it was they who invented the iconic frontier gambler and gunman Doc Holliday. (Thin. Mustachioed. A cold and casual killer. Doomed, and always dressed in black, as though for his own funeral.) That unwanted notoriety added misery to John Henry’s final months, when illness and exile had made him a lonely and destitute alcoholic, dying by awful inches and living off charity in a Colorado hotel.
The wonder is how long and how well he fought that destiny. He was meant to die at birth. The Fates pursued him from the day he first drew breath, howling for his delayed demise. opening

In that way, Alice taught her son to read by the age of four and though correction of his speech required years more, their diligence was rewarded. In adulthood, if his difficulty with certain consonants was noticed at all, acquaintances were apt to ascribe it to his lazy Georgia drawl. Or, later on, to drink. pg. 5

“He ain’t big and he ain’t strong,” nine-year-old Robert Holliday told his Aunt Alice, “but that boy’s got a by-God streak of fight in him.” pg.6

"A man could gamble himself to poverty and still be a gentleman," his second cousin Margaret would one day write in her famous book about the war, "but a professional gambler could never be anything but an outcast." pg. 20

Dodge City had a single purpose: to extract wealth from Texas. Drovers brought cattle north and got paid in cash; Dodge City sent them home in possession of neither. pg. 28

"I can always tell Southerners," he told Doc at the barbershop. "Northerners'll tell you where they're goin', not where they're from. Southerners're like Indians. They'll ask who your relatives are until they find out, oh, my mother's sister married your father's uncle, so we're cousins!" pg. 50

For the rest of his long and eventful life, Alexander von Angensperg might have topped just about any war story told in a Jesuit residence. He could have listened, nodded, and acknowledged each man's most colorful adventure, and then achieved an awed, respectful silence with just six words: "I heard confessions in Dodge City." pg. 79

"Deny it, if you will, but there's an Irishman revealed!" Eddie accused, thumping his empty shot glass on the table. "Make him sad, get him drunk, and on to the poetry, it is!" pg. 102

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