Not Your Usual Wild West Story: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

cover image of DocI loved Mary Doria Russell’s books The Sparrow and Children of God, but a book about the Wild West of cowboys and Indians didn’t appeal to me, so despite all the rave reviews and awards, I didn’t read Doc until recently, although it came out in 2011.

Doc is the story of Dr. John Henry “Doc” Holliday, a Southern gentleman-dentist who went out west for his lungs; he suffered from tuberculosis his whole life. From his mother in Georgia, Doc got his love of classical music and a cultured education (including Latin, French, and Greek), but his mother also had tuberculosis, or consumption, as it was known then, and died when he was only 15.

Most of the novel is set in the frontier town of Dodge City, Kansas, of the infamous “get out of Dodge” reference, meaning it’s too dangerous to stay. This detailed work of literary, historical fiction is presented as the true life story of Doc Holliday, the legendary, gun-slinging friend of Wyatt Earp.

With a chapter from the point of view of the laconic Wyatt Earp, deputy federal marshal, the story is a little slow at the beginning, before the conversations get going. I didn’t know much about even the stereotypical Doc Holliday, so I didn’t feel any real connection to him until the story got going. Give it a bit of time, though, and you’ll feel as though you know this man inside and out.

The author describes Doc this way in A Letter to Book Clubs:

For the past three years, when people asked what my next novel is about, I’ve only had to say four words. “It’s about Doc Holliday.” You mention Doc Holliday to guys especially and they just light up. “Oh, man! I love Doc!” they say, and they often mention Val Kilmer’s portrayal in the movie “Tombstone.”

I love that movie, too, but when I write characters, I’m really writing about whom and what they love. The shining silver wire that runs through Doc is John Henry Holliday’s love for his mother.

[Middle deleted, click here to read the whole letter.]

The Doc Holliday of legend is a gambler and gunman who appears out of nowhere in 1881, arriving in Tombstone with a bad reputation and a hooker named Big Nose Kate. But I have written the story of Alice Holliday’s son: a scared, sick, lonely boy, born for the life of a minor aristocrat in a world that ceased to exist at the end of the Civil War, trying to stay alive on the rawest edge of the American frontier.

John Henry Holliday didn’t have a mother to love him when he was grown, so I have taken him for my own. My fondest hope for Doc is that it will win for him the compassion and respect I think he deserves. Read it, and weep.

I read this for a book group, but was sick with a cold and couldn’t attend the meeting. Visit the book club blog if you’d like to see what the group talked about.

Recommended for book clubs looking for a selection that appeals to men and women, or readers who enjoy historically accurate, yet imaginative works of literary fiction, especially set in the West.

Disclosure: I borrowed this book from the public library.

Russell, Mary Doria
Random House, 2011
394 pp.
$26.00 US/$30.00 CAN


3 thoughts on “Not Your Usual Wild West Story: Doc by Mary Doria Russell”

  1. I too adored The Sparrow but have little interest in the ‘wild West’ so I passed on this. But I read Victoria Wilcox’s Inheritance early this year — it’s the first in a trilogy about ‘Doc’ Holliday — and it was marvelous — will make my top ten of 2013. As a result, I’m a little more curious about Holliday and will likely get this one!

Would love to have you comment!