A Letter from Author Mary Doria Russell
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.
Alice Holliday was 22 when her son was born near Atlanta in the summer of 1851. She was still in mourning for her firstborn, “a sweet little girl who lived just long enough to gaze and smile and laugh, and break her parents' hearts.” I'm sure you can imagine her distress when her second child was born with a cleft palate and cleft lip. Even today, when you know clefts can be repaired, they're a shock.
In 1851, such children commonly died within weeks, but Alice kept her boy alive, waking every hour to feed him with an eyedropper, day and night, for eight long weeks. Think about that exhausted young woman and the baby with the hole in his face. Locking eyes. Struggling to stay awake. Struggling to stay alive...
When the infant was two months old, his uncle Dr. John Stiles Holliday performed a successful surgical repair of the cleft--an achievement kept private to protect the family's reputation. You see, in the 1850s, the Hollidays were Georgia gentry whose large extended family would become the O'Haras, Wilkeses and Hamiltons in Gone With The Wind
. (Margaret Mitchell was Doc's cousin, twice removed.) These were people who took “good breeding” seriously, and birth defects were a source of familial shame--for everyone but Alice.
Alice and her son became intensely close. She invented a form of speech therapy to correct his diction. She was a piano teacher who introduced him to the music that would become their great shared passion. She home-schooled him until she was sure his speech wouldn't be ridiculed, then sent him to a local boys academy, where he excelled in every subject. In the midst of our nation's ugliest war, she raised a shy, intelligent child to be a thoughtful, courteous gentleman and a fine young scholar who would earn the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery before he was 21.
Alice didn't live to see him graduate. She died of tuberculosis when John Henry was 15. The loss was staggering, and when he, too, developed TB, he knew exactly what kind of awful death he faced. Hoping dry air and sunshine would restore his health, he left everyone and everything he loved, and went West. He was only 22 when he left Atlanta in 1873.
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.
Praise for Doc
"Fact and mythmaking converge as Russell creates a Dodge City filled with nuggets of surprising history, a city so alive readers can smell the sawdust and hear the tinkling of saloon pianos...Filled with action and humor yet philosophically rich and deeply moving—a magnificent read." -Kirkus
Praise for Mary Doria Russell
“In clean, effortless prose and with captivating flashes of wit, Mary Doria Russell creates memorable characters who navigate the world of exciting ideas and disturbing moral issues without ever losing their humanity or humor.”—The Bookwatch,
on The Sparrow
“The action moves swiftly, with impressive authority, jostling dialogue, vibrant personalities and meticulous, unexpected historical detail. The intensity and intimacy of Russell’s storytelling, her sharp character writing and fierce sense of humor bring fresh immediacy to this riveting . . . saga.” —Publishers Weekly,
on A Thread of Grace
“Brilliant . . . powerful . . . Russell is an outstanding natural storyteller whose remarkable wit, erudition, and dramatic skills keep us turning the pages in excitement and anticipation.” —San Francisco Chronicle,
on Children of God
“Rapturous and relevant . . . a wonderful story that brings to life a period of history that has remarkable parallels to our own.”—Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
on Dreamers of the Day