I’ve always enjoyed stories of the American west and southwest, specifically spaghetti westerns. I used to watch such movies with my grandpa and dad when I was a kid. True, the content probably wasn’t the best choice, but bonding rituals don’t always make sense. One of my favorite movies is Tombstone. Though the Earps are compelling, I was always specifically interested by Doc Holliday. As such, when browsing the historical fiction section of my local library’s ebook section, I picked up a novel called Doc by Mary Doria Russell.
John Henry Holliday is a displaced southern gentleman living in the infamously wild Dodge City, Kansas. Having moved west to Kansas to escape the cruel effects of Georgia’s humidity on his tuberculosis, he tries to practice dentistry in towns that wax and wane with Texas cowherds, earning him the nickname Doc. In time, he becomes friends with the Earps and inextricably linked to the history of the old west. Doc’s true story, however, is not the same as history might make it out to be. The shootout at the OK Corral was at the end of a long road.
The novel captures the Doc I’m familiar with: the southern drawl, the love for music, and the impatience with stupidity. I learned a lot more than I previously knew about conditions in the old west and perhaps more descriptions of suffering from tuberculosis than I ever hoped to know.
The book is not told entirely from the point of view of Doc. At times, we see things from Wyatt or Morgan Earp’s point of view, or even Kate, Doc’s companion. Dodge City is about as close to Mos Eisley cantina as a place has ever been on this Earth, and is truly a wretched hive of scum and villainy. You’re introduced to the politics of the day, animosity over the not-long-over US Civil War, racial tension, and the hard life of those that moved westward to settle.
The theme of prejudice and assumption is executed well in Doc. You see the difference that education can make, as well as reasoning behind many different types of racism and violence. Dodge City is a melting pot of lost souls, but many manage to find a place in the world.
I felt it was a little disconcerting to go back and forth between characters as suddenly as the book did. For instance, one minute you’d be reading from Doc’s point of view, and then you were suddenly in Wyatt’s shoes. It was fairly easy to pick up on, but still seemed a bit jarring. Many parts of the story were told as future events, while others were presented as blow-by-blow action. I didn’t have much trouble with this, but I could see it disconcerting some readers.
There is little true romance in a story like this. Doc feels isolated because of his intelligence and knowledge about certain things about which other people care little. I related to this quite a bit. When Doc does find another soul who shares his sort of intelligence, he drinks it in like a man in the desert (which I suppose, in a sense, he is).
It’s a sad story of a hard life. There are some parts to make you laugh and smile, and other parts to make you thankful for modern medicine. I came away from the novel feeling a little bit closer to one of my favorite characters, his voice a little clearer in my head.
I’ll call this book READ WITH CAUTION. It’s a bit of a niche read. Generally, if you are interested in that historical time period or any of those historical figures, you’ll probably enjoy it. Otherwise, I can’t really say.