Pros: Gorgeous writing, believable, real-life characters, and a story that will break your heart.
Cons: Nothing about Tombstone, or at least, not very much.
I usually avoid most novels set in the American West; I fear that it is a topic, time and place that have never really interested me. But when I heard that author Mary Doria Russell was coming out with a new novel, well, that's when it really doesn't matter, it's the sheer joy of reading an author who can not just write well, but manages to pull me into a time and place that I've usually never considered before.
The story opens in Dodge City, Kansas where a variety of people are about to cross paths. For some of them, it will lead to fortune and notoriety, if not both at the same time. For others, it will only lead to death. For one man already in Dodge, he already knows how he is going to die, it's the time that's the nebulous part.
Doctor John H. Holliday -- known as Doc to nearly everyone -- has fled his home in Georgia, hoping that the drier climate of Kansas will be kinder to his lungs, which are slowly rotting away from tuberculosis. Soft-spoken, well educated, he makes far more money as a gambler than as a dentist, but his true consolation is music. His companion is Kate, a vivid red-haired woman of European background, who has well, let's say an unusual relationship with Doc. Together they’ve been fleecing the cowboys who arrive with their herds of cattle, and more or less living by the day.
The Earp brothers -- Wyatt, James and Morgan -- have also come to Dodge. While James runs a brothel with his wife Bessie, the other two Earps are trying to carve out a living with the local lawmen. For Wyatt, taciturn as he is, it's a particular trial, as he seems to have annoyed everyone around him. But when he and Doc cross paths, it seems that something clicked, and these two men form a deep bond of friendship. Mixed up all of this is young John Horse Sanders, a boy of mixed Native American and African American heritage, who is found after a deadly fire in what is called the Elephant Barn -- a death that bothers Doc very much, but it seems that no one wants to find out who really did it...
I have read author Mary Doria Russell's other novels, and have been impressed by each one of them, and Doc was just as impressive. With a wide variety of characters, including a European prince turned Jesuit priest, Bat Masterson, a deputy sheriff who dresses loud and is possibly the worst gossip I've ever come across, various corrupt politicians, and Jau Dong-sing, who runs the laundry and whose letters home are an interesting look at what it means to be alone in a foreign land -- well, it's a lively cross-section of America itself, and made this book very hard to put down.
As to the writing style, it does take some getting used to. While most of the novel is linear in direction, the author does take the liberty of jumping around with the characters backstories, and who is telling it -- there are even excursions into the 'what might have happened if --' here and there, but that only added to the final poignancy of the story. But there are passages of great beauty here, and a sense of being there in the middle of the action, such as a party near the end of the book, gorgeous descriptions of music, the general desperation of Dodge City itself, where everyone is trying to hang on until the next big windfall, and the sense that the romantic illusions that we've spun about the American West are just that -- very elusive dreams.
What really surprised me was that I thought I knew about the Earps and Doc Holliday was far from what can really be known. Most of it was created by hack writers, but for the careful researcher -- which Ms. Russell is -- the truth is far more fascinating and interesting. Here, there are causes and reasons for each person to behave as they do, from Doc's illness overshadowing his future, to Wyatt's devastating loss, the role of women in the American West with Bessie, Kate and Belle, to the role of race and the fallout from the Civil War, nearly twenty years over, but still resonating. The author gleaned most of her research from the local newspapers of Dodge City, and the existing histories of the time, and there is a sense of immediacy that most novels set in this time and place seriously lack. In addition to the story, she has included an author's note, and a list of her sources, all of which should form a good basis for further research.
Oh there's plenty of romance, but not quite how it's usually shown. People come together for survival, companionship, or just to fight off the loneliness. Kate and Doc's relationship is the most tempestuous and most will find it a bit off-putting, but again, given Kate's background, it's not surprising at all. Instead, it's a heartbreaking one.
And that's the lovely thing about this novel. I could believe in these characters, I could see what they were thinking, what they were doing, and why they all were in Dodge. By the end, I didn't want the story to finish, I wanted to know more. Those who are looking for the infamous shootout in Tombstone will be a bit disappointed, but I think that the author handled it just right.'
This book gets five stars from me and a hearty recommendation.
Books by Mary Doria Russell:
The Children of God
A Thread of Grace
Dreamers of the Day
Doc: a novel -- you are here
I am including this review in the Made In The USA Write-Off hosted by becky2259, ddustyrose, and talyseon. The May reviews are found here http://www.epinions.com/content_5515485316
Many thanks to the Books CL, Dramastef who was able to add this to the database for me, and very quickly too!
Doc: A Novel
Mary Doria Russell
2011; Random House Publishing