Author: Mary Doria Russell
Release Date: 2011
I’m continuing to review books given glowing recommendations by my favorite Goodreads reviewers. This installment features a recommendation by Kemper who wrote:
“The best read of the year came in the form of two books that made up one historical fiction which added a lot of humanity to legendary figures of the Old West. Doc and Epitaph from Mary Doria Russell were not only entertaining stories but had me thinking a lot about fact vs. fiction when it comes to American myths.”
After finishing Doc I am excited to find and read Epitaph as this was a very well written and engrossing read. I actually knew a lot about Doc Holliday prior to reading this. In addition to having seen a half dozen westerns that portrayed him, I’d read an actual biography about him Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. As a result I had a pretty good idea of all of the historical details that make up the life of Doc, as well as the lack of resources available to verify the legend.
Before reading this book I was expecting a life story of the famous gunfighter but Russell wisely chooses to tell a story about his lesser known Dodge City days. The benefit of this is that the story can focus on humanizing Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate and Wyatt & Morgan Earp before they become “famous” individuals. Holliday’s battles in this book involve trying to establish a dental practice, a relationship with Kate and live with consumption. Wyatt Earp’s conflicts center on understanding cowtown politics, adjusting to new teeth and living with a woman. The main plot (which is only loosely a straight forward narrative) is driven by the mystery of the death of a former slave and his missing money.
The use of guns in this book is significantly less than one would expect from the list of characters and setting which makes any moment with action feel much more important by comparison. Again this was a wise choice by Russell as the characters all obviously make it out of Dodge and down to Tombstone, so relying on life and death conflicts would not have had the same stakes as with an all fictional cast. Russell substitutes that action with horse racing, card games and a fist fights, all of which Holliday and the Earps are more vulnerable to.
Much like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe books, the nature of this title also allows for some fun historical notes afterward by Russell that provide a Cliff notes biography of Holliday for those not looking to read a whole non-fiction book or wikipedia entry about. There is also a nice table of characters at the beginning to distinguish from the real people with those created for the novel. A cursory glance shows that Russell used her creative liberty to both populate her town with more diversity and create a villain that she could portray as evil without offending any descendants.
My only criticism of this book was a recurring structure of introducing a character with lots of historical background at the beginning of each chapter. For main characters I found this interesting enough but once the story got moving the frequent detours seemed to drag the story more than they provided benefit in the form of context. I generally try to avoid plot spoilers or reading the backs of books ahead of time, so I look forward to finding out who or what exactly Epitaph is about.