290 of 297 people found the following review helpful
I'm a huge Mary Doria Russell fan, BUT not so much a fan of "westerns"...so it was with a bit of trepidation that I approached reading and reviewing Russell's latest novel, "Doc", which takes place in Dodge City, Kansas in the late 1870s and with the legendary (and largely mythical) characters of Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, etc. The eventual events in Arizona at the O.K. Corral are alluded to, but not the focus of this novel.
I needn't have worried, it is Russell's wonderful writing and thorough research that makes any subject interesting and accessible. She clearly revels in the research because hers is meticulous; she makes the "wild west" come alive in surprisingly non-stereotypical ways. Clearly she made an effort to separate the myth and legend of Doc Holliday from the truer (and more interesting) tale.
Set primarily in the summer of 1878, the story begins with Doc and his lady-love/prostitute, Kate, who are in Dodge City so that Doc can make enough money gambling to open a legitimate dentistry practice. Descriptions are vivid and fascinating of the riotous activity and carnival atmosphere in a town full of gambling houses and brothels and ignorant but newly rich cowboys. Russell paints a vivid picture of the burgeoning civilization coming to the "wild west" and I found her descriptions of the various denizens of Dodge at the cusp between wildness and civility to be fascinating. She provides the point of view for farmers, cowboys, lawmen, prostitutes and businessmen. Scenes in Doc's dentistry office are illuminating of early dentistry.
A young mixed race man, Johnnie Sanders, friend to both Doc and Wyatt Earp is killed. In an example of early crime forensics, Doc quickly ascertains that Johnnie was murdered and enlists lawman Earp (who feels somewhat guilty about what Johnnie was doing when he died) to help him establish that as fact, without much hope of catching the killer. This is merely a sub-plot, however, because the real meat of the story is in the characters and their relationships to each other and to Dodge City.
The is the fifth novel I've read by Mary Doria Russell, and once again, she made her characters so real to me that several times I found myself near tears with a distinct lump in my throat. I read a LOT and this does not happen to me routinely. She has never failed to move me, and I am always sad to close the last page. To prolong my enjoyment, when I finished the novel I put on a CD of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and closed my eyes and imagined myself in a dance hall in Dodge City in 1878.
74 of 77 people found the following review helpful
Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp are firmly established in the pantheon of Wild West legends, along with Jesse James and Billy the Kid. So many books have been written about them, fiction and nonfiction, that it may seem odd to find another novel based on one of these gunslingers. It must be their legendary status that draws the attention of writers. Widespread familiarity with the legend becomes the writer's base, and the chance to reinvent or reinterpret an icon has an undeniable appeal. In Doc, Russell embraces the challenge of making the familiar seem new with surprising success.
Behind every legend there's a person, and it is the person, not the gunfighter, that Mary Doria Russell imagines in her story of Doc Holliday's time in Dodge City. Russell underplays the novel's armed confrontations while taking note of how legends build, how tall tales grow: an incident involving six cowboys evolves in the telling until Holliday faces down two dozen. Ultimately Russell deconstructs the legend, deemphasizing Holliday's skills as a gunfighter/gambler while painting a detailed picture of a loquacious, consumptive dentist who seems always a step away from death. The plot, such as it is, involves the apparent murder of an entirely fictitious character, a friend of Holliday and Wyatt Earp, but the mystery of his death is merely a vehicle to drive a deeper story. It isn't the familiar story of the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp's confrontation with the Clantons; the novel makes reference to those events in a concluding chapter, but the story effectively ends in Dodge City, before the Earp brothers and Holliday make their way to Tombstone.
Russell begins with an eyeblink view of John Holliday's Civil War childhood and his brief but violent stay in Texas (where he killed a man and was shot by another). By the time Holliday decides to rebuild his tubercular life in Dodge City, he's taken up with Kate, a princess turned prostitute who entrances him with erudition that matches his own. Kate is a significant figure in Holliday's life and in the novel. Kate's affinity for Holliday is based in part on his ability to win large sums of money at the card tables, in part on his intelligence and education, and in part on her inability to understand him. Unlike the other men in her considerable experience, who "were as obvious and as easily dealt with as a phallus," the complex dentist becomes her most memorable lover. To Kate's dismay, it is Doc Holliday's dentistry, not his gambling, that fills him with pride and purpose. Russell portrays Holliday as a compassionate if ill-tempered man who treats the fictitious characters "China Joe" and John Horse Sanders with respect regardless of their race, who understands the difficult lives that drove women to work in bordellos. Russell's Holliday is a man isolated by his intelligence and southern manners as much as his illness and quick temper.
Russell's Dodge City is a lawless land of unchecked freedom, fueled by the seasonal influx of money brought by Texans driving cattle: "They were giddy with liberty, these boys, free to do anything they could think of and pay for: unwatched by stern elders, unseen by sweethearts back home, unjudged by God, who had surely forsaken this small, bright hellhole in the immense, inhuman darkness that was west Kansas." Russell populates Dodge City with fully realized characters, emphasizing the routine and drama of their daily lives rather than the excitement and rough justice of frontier life. Speaking to Morgan Earp about literature, Holliday argues that Raskolnikoff and Oliver Twist's Fagin are interesting characters because they are a mixture of good and bad. Russell's characters are interesting for the same reasons. She creates a Wyatt Earp who is filled with insecurities instilled by an abusive father. The experiences and motives that drive her politicians and villains illuminate their lives.
I can't speak to the novel's historical accuracy, although I can note that Russell, in an afterward, calls attention to a few minor changes she made in the historical record. She also lists the novel's characters, italicizing the few who are entirely fictitious. Frankly, I don't think it matters; writers of fiction are licensed to change the past for the sake of the story. Still, so far as I can tell, Rusell's novel is as true to the past as it is to the artist's purpose: to tell truths even when they are fictional. Doc is a wise and stirring and truthful novel about a hard, determined, complicated man. It easily merits five stars.
75 of 80 people found the following review helpful
Although "Doc" was my first exposure to Mary Doria Russell, it will not be my last. Her writing flows beautifully. It is vividly descriptive as she sets the scenes, develops believable characters and sensuously draws the reader in.
Much of the story is true, but the book is a historical fiction about the life and times of John Henry Holliday, known in real life for his association with the Earp brothers-- Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil and James. He and the Earps are most famous for their 30-second shootout at the O.K. Corral with the Clanton and McLaury brothers in Tombstone, Arizona at 3 p.m. on October 26, 1881, but that is not the focus of "Doc." In fact, the author credits William Barkley "Bat" Masterson with exaggerating and making up dime store novels for personal gain that resulted in Holliday's reputation as a gunslinger and cold blooded killer.
Doc was born on August 12, 1851 in Griffin Georgia in a wealthy family, graduated from Dental Surgery School in Atlanta and opened up an office with a partner in 1872; however, like his mother John was inflicted with consumption (tuberculosis), was given a poor prognosis and encouraged to move to a more arid climate. He moved to Dallas, Texas, Dodge City, Kansas and later Tombstone, Arizona.
The story is primarily about Doc Holliday's long impending struggle with living his adult life as his debilitating disease slowly destroyed his lungs and finally kill him on November 8, 1887. The story describes a man of many facets--a dentist, a gambler, an accomplished piano player, a horseman, an alcoholic, extremely educated, quick tempered, a loyal friend, a friend of the oppressed, and an amazing human being.
John's long on-again off-again relationship with former wealthy educated aristocrat, turned alcoholic prostitute and Doc's gambling promoter known as Kate Harony is an integral part of this fascinating and moving tale.
I was absolutely enthralled with this author's writing style and ability to paint a riveting adventure. Enjoy!
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Born and raised in Montana and Wyoming, at 56, I have heard the folklore and fairy tales of famous outlaws and heroes all my life. I shunned them. Why? Because every character from Wyatt Earp to Doc Holliday were bequeathed accolades of total virtue or vile inhumanity. Wild west tales thrived on provocative lore. Mary Doria Russell dispels the myth of Doc Holliday, leaving in it's wake a man; a real human being. Wyatt Earp and his brothers, and all the characters of "Tombstone," are not paraded out in this novel; like a fine trained archeologist the author digs for the facts, presenting them in a flowing, descriptive, text that ignites the fire within the reader for truth in all it's forms.
Birthed in the South, John Henry Holliday was given music, books, Catholic ideals and culture that money and affluence afforded the wealthy. He acquired the chivalry, the finesse of a Southern gentlemen, and due to his genius for learning, a dental license from the finest schools in the East. Holliday's Fate appeared sealed; his life would be that of an educated Southern aristocrat who worked in civil employment, married and raised his children to do the same. Sadly, however, Fate is a faithless mistress.
With the Civil War, John's life takes a devastating detour. The family fortune is scalped, thus leaving young Holliday a sickly-ridden(tuberculosis),lonesome man in search of a new destiny. Fate affords young John a residence in Dodge City, Kansas, a wild, untamed frontier that has little encouragement for the pale, gaunt, educated man knocking at it's door. "Doc," as he became nicknamed, used alcohol to numb the perpetual pain of coughing and screaming aches, as laudanum made him too confused. Card dealing(learned in the parlors of plantations for amusement) provided a roof and sustenance; a prostitute, Kate, whose own Fate was skewered, became his paramour. Fate attempts to demand we display ourselves as victims or victors, but, often, it is a combination of both that writes our legacies. Thus is the case for Doc Holliday.
Mary Doria Russell breathtaking prose, mired in adept research, provides us the alter on which we can judge John Henry Holliday, virtues and vices revealed. Off with his head, or my, God, but for the Grace go I, is the reader's decision. Truth is a great leveler on both sides of the scale; this brilliantly constructed fictional, yet factual, novel provides the room for human error; for lost chances; for roads wrongly taken and those completely forsaken.
One of the finest novels I have ever read, I applaud Russell wildly. I am a voracious reader and so few make it to my top lists; this book resides on that upper shelf.
Recommended seems trite, but I highly and profoundly advise reading this inspiring tale of the Wild West and one man, Doc Holliday, who stood before it, imperfect, battling the tornados winded his way with all his mind and might.
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
Had this book not been written by one of my favorite authors, I probably never would have picked it up. Westerns and their associated heroes/villains - fiction or not - are a genre I don't have much interest in.
But with the name Mary Doria Russell on the cover, I had to own this, had to read it. And I ended up liking it, it was an enjoyable enough read, but it didn't consume me the way "The Sparrow" and "Children of God" did.
There is an element, however, in the fictionalized Doc Holliday that brings to mind Emilio Sandoz - the main character of those two breathtaking novels. The best way I can describe it is a doomed civility...that sometimes breaks down into the purest form of human despair. These are men who cherish the small instances of pure goodness that they find in their world, but are filled with the certain sorrow that very little of it lies within themselves.
This Doc Holliday is far from what my very ignorant ideas of the man were. This Doc Holliday is a tortured soul, a far cry from the killer that his name brings to mind.
"In the silence, John Henry (Holliday) searched for the words that would explain what it was like to spend your entire adult life dying - what it was like trying to make sense of a dozen contradictory theories about what caused your disease and how to treat it when your own continued existence could be used to support any of them. Or all of them, or none. Because of what he'd done, or not done, or for no reason at all, the disease sometimes went into retreat, but only as a tide retreats-"
This book, filled as it is with names familiar even to those of us who don't read/watch Westerns or Western history...still came down (for me) for this man. To Doc Holliday - a man trapped in a purgatory between life and death, between the world he knew and the possibility of a world he may never see.
And there is a tragic beauty in this story...of small elements of wonder and grace in a world turned on its head, in a country just moving from the brink of war...
"For he has never heard anything like it - did not know such music existed in the world - and it was hard to believe that a man he knew could play it with his own two hands. There were parts of it like birdsong, and parts like rolling thunder and hard rain, and parts that glittered like fresh snow when the sun comes out and it's so cold the air takes your breath away. And parts were like a dust devil spinning past, or a cyclone on the horizon, and all of it cried out for the words that he had read only in books and had never said aloud."
"Glorious. Magnificent. Sublime."
In the end, this was a good story, one that I might recommend to those readers that do enjoy the characters, events and legends of the Old West. It was not one, though, that touched my soul in the way that Russell's previous works have. I look forward to her next novel for that.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2011
I nearly passed on reading this book. I don't like "western" movies or fiction, the "old west" period of American history doesn't interest me at all, and a little snooping into the author's other work revealed novels in the Fantasy/Futurist genre, a genre I dislike almost as much as Western. Thank goodness I went ahead and read it anyway, because it felt like a gift to be privileged to read such an exquisitely told story.
The legendary characters that people this book, Doc Holliday, his companion Kate, the Earp brothers, etc., have become caricatures thanks to the legends, myths, and plain old lies that have accreted to them. Russell lovingly restores human dignity to each. They are rendered round and lush with a full complement of wholly human pains, joys, foibles, quirks, passions, and vices. We love, hate, fear, and dream right alongside them as the author takes us on the journey through these several years of their lives.
Russell has that elusive gift of bringing a setting to vibrant life. We breathe the muggy Georgian air that Doc struggles to inhale; we feel the tension in our thighs when Wyatt Earp's 2-dollar horse shies at crossing a rickety bridge. When an August sun broils the prairie, we feel the sweat trickle down our backs. I can't begin to explain what that means to me as a reader. I want all my senses appealed to: I want to smell the oiled leather, bear the racking cough, taste the dust, and delight in an unexpected breeze on a hot afternoon. Russell made sure that I did just that.
The historical details are convincing, without ever becoming tediously pedantic. Even 19th century dentistry practices were rendered interesting. Russell's depiction of the torture of tuberculosis was almost disturbing--I have asthma and there were times my lungs seemed to seize in response to Doc's suffering. It's clear that Russell diligently researched the lives of her characters, the history of the regions where the story takes place, the technology of the period, and the small day-to-day details that bring historical fiction to life.
In short, a delight of a book. This was my first by this author, but it definitely won't be the last.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
The title of Mary Doria Russell's new book may be Doc, but the novel sheds light on the many earthy people intertwined in the life of Dr. John Henry Holliday. These characters will captivate you with Old West jargon and courage as they live in a world of gambling, alcohol, prostitution and horses. The author's background in anthropology illuminates her carousing, caring, and courageous tamers of the Early West.
Doc Holliday was born with a cleft palate. Corrective surgery while a child left no tell-tale signs except a charming crooked grin. This auspicious new lease on life seems a reverse metaphor for how the brightness of his life dwindled into an extended death from tuberculosis. Russell shows us the real man, not just the Doc Holliday from the OK Corral. He was educated, thoughtful, cultivated, and a competent dentist who cared about his patients. We discover the man we knew as a gunslinger understood Latin and French, adored Beethoven, played piano and read The Aeneid. His wheezy laugh, wracking cough, fluid-filled lungs, ulcerated throat and chest pain run like threads through the book. Even after taking to the dry frontier to improve his health, Doc seems always a breath away from death. The author masterfully delineates the truth about Doc Holliday from the myth. He is fascinating.
Kate, his high-strung, often-inebriated fight-picking companion, genuinely loves Doc. It is refreshing to see a different side of Wyatt Earp, normally portrayed as a tough skinned lawman. He loves his disreputable, naughty horse and cherishes the woman in his life. He and Doc are brought together by a strong moral code over the death of an innocent boy of color. Bat Masterson and a Jesuit priest round out the main characters.
Applaud this female writer for aptly capturing the world of men in Doc. Straightforward and punchy, much like the wild frontier, the writing is clear, crisp and replete with historical detail. You'll sit in saloons with these people, smell cigar smoke and wonder what's really in their poker hand. Chapter headings not only capture the spirit of the times, but give us hints into the plot movement:
* Stacking the Deck
* The Ante
* Wild Card
* Under the Table
* Playing for Keeps
A bit overpopulated and sometimes windy, Doc is a witty and enjoyable read, especially for fans of the raw American West. Mary Doria Russell hits the nail on the head again. If moved by John Henry Holliday's story, the author requests readers make donations to organizations such as the Smile Train, for surgical correction of cleft palates.
Random House provided the advance release copy. The opinions expressed are unbiased and wholly that of the reviewer.
Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
The old West holds romantic ideas and myths, full of hootin' and hollerin' cowboys, the lawmen, the saloon girls, the bartenders. How people moved West without much money but plenty of dreams and hopes, many to have their dreams come true, others to have their lives shattered when fate would rear her ugly head.
Who hasn't heard of Doc Holliday, the gun-slinging, card dealing, cold-blooded murderer who, by the way, was also a dentist? Everyone knows Holliday lived hard and fast, taking what he wanted, killing who got in his way, not caring one way or the other? We've all heard of the shoot-out at the OK Corral, Tombstone, and the Earp brothers. Read DOC and meet the REAL Doc Holliday -- the man behind the myths.
What Mary Russell shows us about John Henry Holliday -- known in his later years as Doc Holliday -- was that he was a true Southern gentleman through and through. He was caring, compassionate, witty, intelligent, a student of many arts, and a piano player. He was a dentist, a card shark, a dead shooter, a forever and loyal friend.
History jumps to life in this book and was an interesting and wonderful way to place fact with fiction. All of the characters propel off the pages and you, the reader, are transported to the dusty, dirty, ever-changing weather landscape of the West. The reader walks side-by-side through the muddy, dung filled streets with the characters in this book as history is retold in such an engaging matter.
Doc Holliday was no saint, but he was a man who saw right from wrong. Russell brings Doc to life once again. We meet his friends in the West, ranging from the Earp brothers to vaudeville comedian Eddie Foy. His early life in Georiga with his beloved mother brought tears to my eyes more than once. Doc's off/on again love affair with Kate Harony was strange, loving, and always forgiving. To this reader, Doc Holliday was a very complex person and it was a joy to find out about the REAL John Henry Holliday.
There are several stages to this book, taking us from Doc's early life to the bitter end, and everything in between. A young man is found murdered, a stable is burned to the ground, the Earps are being stalked, Doc's dentist business is getting off the ground, relationships are constantly changing, and time marches on. There are historical events and as the reader, you are right there placed in the middle, meeting everyone who knew and either hated or loved John Henry Holliday.
Doc was only 36 years old when he succumbed to tuberculosis, the disease that also took his beloved mother. In my humble opinion, the world lost quite the character when we lost Doc Holliday.
If you are looking to read a rootin'/tootin', shoot-em-up, yee-haw Western, this is not that book. If you want to learn more about a man who had much compassion for his fellow man, a man who loved the arts, a man who had your back and would do anything to protect those he loved, this is the book for you. If you love history and enjoy tales of the old West - when it was just starting to become civilized -- you shouldn't miss this book.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Although Mary Doria Russell does not go into detail about which parts of "Doc" are fact and which are fiction, she writes in the author's note to her novel that "not all of it but a lot more than you might think" is real. That said, Russell's Doc Holliday is a memorable character that readers learn to know very well, whatever the mixture of fact and fiction. She portrays him so well, I have no doubt that if I were transported to the Dodge City, Kansas of the late 1870s, I'd immediately recognize him. He'd seem like an old friend. Heck, I'd recognize him in any century. I can almost hear his voice as I type this review.
"Doc" is, of course, about John Henry Holliday, the Georgia dentist most famous for his part in the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona and his friendship with Wyatt Earp. The book, however, does not focus on what happened in Tombstone, but on Doc's life in Dodge City. It is mostly about the kind of person Doc was and how he came to be that way, but it is also a lot about Wyatt Earp and his brother, Morgan, and Doc's lady friend, Kate. The four are inescapably entwined in reality, as well as in Russell's book.
The first chapter describes some of Holliday's childhood, particularly the influence of his mother, Alice. In every chapter, Russell describes what life was like during the time period the book covers. Contrasts between the Kansas landscape and that of the South are vividly drawn. Contrasts between Southern customs and manners and those of the Kansas prairie are even more vividly exposed.
Fact or fiction, this is a very well-written, compulsively readable character study of men who are legends, particularly of Doc Holliday. The historical fact, which nearly every reader will know before even opening the novel -- that Doc died very young of tuberculosis -- makes it a bitter-sweet read.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
"I'm your huckleberry."
Years ago, I saw Val Kilmer at an airport. That was the only thing--"I'm your huckleberry."--I could think of to say to him. Of course, I thought of it 30 seconds too late and didn't actually say anything.
In the movie Tombstone, Val Kilmer portrays the legendary character of Doc Holliday. It's a performance that I've been unable to forget. What a fascinating character.
In her latest novel, Doc, Mary Doria Russell, strips away the myths and lore surrounding one of Wild West's infamous characters and tells the story of John Henry Holliday, a young, sickly dentist from Georgia, who goes west in search of a cure to the tuberculosis that has already killed his mother.
Tired of life in Texas, J.H. Holliday and his girl Kate, head to Dodge City, Kansas. It's the end of the line for the cattle drives from Texas. Dodge City, full of vice and money and shifty politics, is the perfect place for a card sharp. While in Dodge, Doc sets up his dentist practice and meets the Earp brothers--with whom his name will be permanently linked in the pages of history.
Russell, an anthropologist, may be trying to present a more accurate picture of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp but the characters are only more rich and fully developed and believable in her version. Doc might not have been the gun slinging, cold-blooded, revenge-seeking man as he is generally portrayed (and even possibly became once they move on to Tombstone), but J.H. Holliday is still an intriguing anachronism. How does this highly educated, concert pianist, feeble gentleman fit in the rough and tawdry world that is Dodge City, Kansas? Using wit, skill at cards, unlikely friendships with the Earps and an undeserved reputation, Doc manages quite well.
I've had such a busy and fun week with multiple family get togethers and very late nights, but every chance I got, I slipped away to read this book. Russell is a gifted story teller. While some of the book, especially the beginning, reads more like a historical narrative, Russell does bring the characters to life. She also sets the stage for the inevitable action, by painting a detailed picture of Dodge and giving even the minor characters, such as the Chinese launderer, the Jesuit priest, the proper and beautiful belle of Dodge, and the various prostitutes personality and humanity. Seen through their eyes, Dodge City becomes more than just a Hollywood set of a dusty street of clapboard buildings.
Mary Doria Russell's novel Doc is a stand-out work of historical fiction and gave me a new perspective on this most fascinating character.
I received a free copy of this book from Goodreads.com in exchange for an honest review. No additonal compensation has been received.