Monday, September 5, 2011

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Most people have heard of Doc Holliday, the gambling sharpshooter.  Far fewer have heard of Doctor John Henry Holliday, the skilled dentist and Southern aristocrat who was forced out west by his health.  Mary Doria Russell introduces readers to both and the combined man who was more than any of the legends that rose about him in her novel, Doc.

Holliday was born in the South and learned much of what he knew from his mother.  He adored her and she introduced him to classical music and the classic authors he loved so much.  Tragically, she died early from what was called consumption in those days and tuberculosis in ours.  Even more tragically, she was probably the source from which Holliday also contracted TB. 

Holliday, after her death, had moved in with relatives.  His uncle, a prominent physician, convinced Holliday to study dentistry, which he considered a superior skill.  Holliday planned to open a practice with his cousin, but the early signs of TB put a stop to that.  Living in the hot, humid South would be a death sentence, so he moved out West.  Unfortunately, the economy there did not support dentistry, and Doc soon began to take advantage of his other skills.  He could ride a horse as if born in the saddle, draw a gun so fast it seemed to just appear in his hand, and use his intellect and skill to support himself at the poker and faro tables.

Russell introduces the reader to the real Doc Holliday.  She also writes of those who surrounded Doc; his lover, Kate, the Earp brothers Wyatt, James and Morgan, Bat Masterson and a host of others.  Doc was defined by his illness, which took his life by inches.  He became an alcoholic who drank all day to quiet his cough.  Some regarded him as a criminal, but underneath, he remained the man he grew up as with a strong ethical sense and a determination to live life on his terms.

This book is recommended for all readers, especially those who love historical fiction.  The reader is transported to the Old West with its legends and shown the true stories around which the legends grew up.  Russell treats her characters kindly, showing their reasoning as well as their human frailties.  The reader will turn the last page more knowledgeable about this part of American history and the men who carved out civilization out West. 

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