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The year is 1878, peak of the Texas cattle trade. The place is Dodge City, Kansas, a saloon-filled cow town jammed with liquored-up adolescent cowboys and young Irish hookers. Violence is random and routine, but when the burned body of a mixed-blood boy named Johnnie Sanders is discovered, his death shocks a part-time policeman named Wyatt Earp. And it is a matter of strangely personal importance to Doc Holliday, the frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who has just opened an office at No. 24 Dodge House.
Beautifully educated, born to the life of a Southern gentleman, Dr. John Henry Holliday is given an awful choice at the age of twenty-two: die within months in Atlanta or leave everyone and everything he loves in the hope that the dry air and sunshine of the West will restore him to health. Young, scared, lonely, and sick, he arrives on the Texas frontier just as an economic crash wrecks the dreams of a nation. Soon, with few alternatives open to him, Doc Holliday is gambling professionally; he is also living with Mária Katarina Harony, a high-strung Hungarian whore with dazzling turquoise eyes, who can quote Latin classics right back at him. Kate makes it her business to find Doc the high-stakes poker games that will support them both in high style. It is Kate who insists that the couple travel to Dodge City, because “that’s where the money is.”
And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp really begins—before Wyatt Earp is the prototype of the square-jawed, fearless lawman; before Doc Holliday is the quintessential frontier gambler; before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology—when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety.
Authentic, moving, and witty, Maria Doria Russell’s fifth novel redefines these two towering figures of the American West and brings to life an extraordinary cast of historical characters, including Holliday’s unforgettable companion, Kate. First and last, however, Doc is John Henry Holliday’s story, written with compassion, humor, and respect by one of our greatest contemporary storytellers.

394 pages, Hardcover

First published May 3, 2011

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About the author

Mary Doria Russell

18 books2,988 followers
Mary Doria Russell is an American author. She was born in 1950 in the suburbs of Chicago. Her parents were both in the military; her father was a Marine Corps drill sergeant, and her mother was a Navy nurse.

She holds a Ph.D. in Paleoanthropology from the University of Michigan, and has also studied cultural anthropology at the University of Illinois, and social anthropology at Northeastern University in Boston. Russell lives in Cleveland, Ohio with her husband Don and their two dogs.

Mary is shy about online stuff like Goodreads, but she responds to all email, and would prefer to do that through her website.

Photo by Jeff Rooks

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Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
April 17, 2020
”He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could not longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.”

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Doc Holliday

This is the story of John Henry “Doc” Holliday. He is a lunger, a gambler, a fornicator, a gentleman, a killer, a dentist, and an accomplished piano player. He was a man capable of great violence one moment and compassionate kindness in the next. He was easily slighted. Any perceived slur against his honor would elicit stinging wit if you were lucky or if he was too drunk to lash you properly with his tongue a drawn gun. He was a loyal friend and a dangerous enemy.

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Dodge City 1878. It doesn’t look like much does it?

This is also the story of Dodge City in 1878. At this time the town is filled with cowboys from Texas with wallets full of money and a lot of trail dust to shake out of their clothes. The reason that Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, and the Earps are there is to relieve those cowboys of as much of that money as they can. James Earp and his wife Bessie are running a bordello. Doc Holliday is playing poker and performing his dentistry on the side. Morgan Earp is a lawman. His brother Wyatt is a part time law officer making most of his money off of the two dollar bounty on each arrest he makes. There are plenty of arrests to be made. It was a fine line the Earps had to walk between keeping people safe and letting the cowboys have their fun. Too many busted heads and the Texans would elect to spend their money elsewhere.

Mary Katherine Harony (also spelled Horony, Haroney, and Horoney) was born to a Hungarian physician who became the personal doctor of Maximilian I. For those that don’t know, things did not go well for Max, and the Harony family had to move to the United States. In Iowa her parent’s died within months of each other leaving her and her sister orphans. At 16 Kate ran away from her foster home and found, as do most runaways today, that one of the few options available to a young girl to make money was to trade her virtue to slack the desires of men. When she met up with Doc in Texas there were fireworks of the lust kind and of the fighting tooth and nail kind. Doc was an educated man and he would have to look a long time for a woman south of the Mississippi that could match him quote for quote like Kate.

She talked him into going to Kansas.

”We should move to Dodge,” she decided.
We? he thought.
“Kansas?” he said, as though she were mad and that settled it.
“That’s where the money is.”
“Suit yourself,” he told her, “but I am not goin’ to Kansas.”
“Sera in fondo parsimonia,” she warned.
Seneca! he thought. Thrift awaits at the bottom of an empty purse.
Her Latin was always a treat.

She bucked him up when he felt stage fright before a big poker game.

”Drive the stake into Cyclops’ eye early. Word would get around. Her Greek was better than Doc’s, but she knew he would recognize the quote. ‘Enter Fearlessly.’ she recited. ‘However foreign a man may be, in every crisis it is the high face that will carry him through.’
“Brazen it out,” he translated.
“Words to live by,” she told him.
“Easy for Athena to say.”

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Big Nose Kate not a great beauty, but certainly intriguing.

Mary Doria Russell really puts flesh on the bones of the characters, but also on the nuances of Doc and Kate’s relationship.

”When I am sick,” he told them softly, “she fears that I will die, and she will end up on the street. When my health improves, she fears that I will go back to Georgia, and she knows I will not take her home to the family.” He glanced at the others.”Strikin’ a balance eludes me.”

Doc would have rather spent his time doing dentistry work, but it didn’t pay well enough to keep him in the fine clothes he liked for himself and the latest fashions he liked to see Kate wear. He also had a powerful need for alcohol that dulled some of the pain and made breathing easier. He was forced to gamble to live the life he wanted to live and with the spectre of death riding on his shoulder who could blame him for wanting to live a little better for the time he had left.

Wyatt was explaining to Doc that he would love his wife Urilla for the rest of his life even though she died nine years ago.

”That is your ghost life, Wyatt,” Doc told him, and closed his eyes again. “that is the life you might have had. This is the life you’ve got.”

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Who was Wyatt Earp?

It made me think about how different life would have been for Holliday if his mother had lived longer. If he hadn’t developed tuberculosis. If he hadn’t met Kate who kept pushing him to chase money. If he hadn’t met Wyatt Earp. The threads that spread from any one of those events not happening could have led Doc to a better life, certainly a different life, that maybe didn’t end with him in his grave at 36. We all leave ghost lives behind us. We zag left instead of right and it is remarkable to think about how sometimes the smallest change can ripple so large leaving us baffled at how we ended up with this life instead of another. We can’t think about it too much though or we stop living. We become lungs that can’t breath.

Doc didn’t particularly like gambling. He just happened to be good at it and sometimes watching people throw a year of hard work or even sometimes a lifetime of hard work on the table all in play for the turn of card was hard for him to observe without some remorse. He understands the impulse.

”When the bet is placed,” he said, “a moment is carved away from the past and the future. In that enchanted moment, anything is possible. A man’s debts and regrets and limitations disappear. He is buyin’ the chance to imagine--for one moment at a time--that the next card I deal will make him rich.”

I enjoyed Mary Doria Russell’s writing style and her ability to take these real life characters that I felt I knew well and put more flesh on their bones. There is a mystery that sort of binds everything together involving the death of a mixed race boy named Johnnie Sanders. A book must have a plot, but really it was secondary or only a means for us to see Doc and Kate and Morgan and Wyatt interact. Kate is certainly more than just a girlfriend or a friend with benefits or a harpy or a prostitute. Russell presents her in a more sympathetic light than I’ve ever experienced by showing why Doc was with her and the benefits she brought to the relationship. Wyatt Earp is also more well rounded with his weaknesses and his strengths weighed in equal measure. Morgan is shown to be the communicator between his family and the rest of the world. He likes people and Doc is actually better friends with him than he is with Wyatt.

Like a lot of people my favorite version of Doc is the Val Kilmer portrayal in the movie Tombstone but Russel’s depiction of the man strips away the legend and lets us see the man as so very human. You will enjoy his candor and his intelligence and his kindness and his stubbornness to continue living. You will wish that you could spend a day in Dodge City with Doc Holliday, hopefully on one of his better days, and play a few hands of cards with him. If you do figure out how to go back in time just make sure you lose because there will be no doubt he will need the money more than you do.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11k followers
March 12, 2012
No offense to daises like Kirk Douglas, Victor Mature, Dennis Quaid or Sam Gilman**...but when it comes to Doc Holiday this will always be my huckleberry:

Tombstone is one of my favorite westerns movies of all time and I could give a rat’s rancid ass that it’s as hollywood a rendition of the Earp/Holliday story as there’s even been...in this instance, Hollywood knocked the cover off the ball.

I wanted you to know where I was coming from vis a vis Doc so that you could put my review in some context. With that said, I’m gonna steal borrow my good friend Richard’s review structure for this one and hope he doesn’t go all Ike Clanton on me.


If Tombstone was summertime, testosterone-flavored candy for the man-parts, than Doc by Maria Doria Russell is the Christmastime, Oscar-hopeful, limited release Merchant-Ivory production. There’s very little gun play and no stunt men were needed to perform any of the scenes in the story. It’s character driven, nuanced and leisurely paced and takes itself very seriously without ever even hinting of pretension.

Rather than focusing on the widely adapted occurrences taking place at Tombstone, Arizona, the novel focuses briefly on Doc’s early years and then spends the balance of the story during the years prior to Tombstone that Holiday and the Earps lived in Dodge City, Kansas. It was a period I was vaguely familiar with but Russell lays it out with such elegance and skill that I feel like I have heard the story for the first time.

In addition to being a character study of Doc and Wyatt Earp, and to a lesser degree the other Earp boys and their “wives” there is also a murder mystery element that acts as a secondary focal point for the narrative. This was unexpected...but not unwelcome. I was hesitant to even mention this secondary plot because it is so gradually threaded into the tapestry of the story that I kept wondering to myself whether the solving of it was going to be part of the final resolution. However, it is a very important ingredient and though it spends most of the time in the background, it is very much a lynchpin of both the novel and Doc’s story.


The following has nothing to do with this book review and are just some bonus quotes from Tombstone that I was reminded of while I read this book. They are garnish and you can skip down to “My Review” if you have no interest...otherwise I hope you enjoy:

Wyatt Earp: Go ahead, skin it! Skin that smokewagon and see what happens...
Johnny Tyler: M-mister, I'm gettin' awful tired of your...
Wyatt Earp: [slaps Tyler across the face] I'm gettin' tired of all your gas, now jerk that pistol and go to work!...[slaps him harder] I said throw down, boy!
...Are you gonna do something or just stand there and bleed?


Billy Clanton: [as Doc Holliday is playing piano] Is that "Old Dog Trey? Sounds like "Old Dog Trey."
Doc Holliday: Pardon?
Billy Clanton: Stephen Foster. "Oh, Susannah", "Camptown Races". Stephen stinking Foster.
Doc Holliday: Ah, yes. Well, this happens to be a nocturne.
Billy Clanton: A which?
Doc Holliday: You know, Frederic fucking Chopin.

Wyatt Earp[to Ike Clanton]: You die first, get it? Your friends might get me in a rush, but not before I make your head into a canoe, you understand me?
Doc Holiday [exits saloon and addresses Billy Clanton]: And you, music lover...you’re next.
Billy Clanton: Why, it's the drunk piano player. You're so drunk, you can't hit nothin'. In fact, you're probably seeing double. [draws a knife]
Doc Holliday: [takes out a second gun] I have two guns, one for each of ya.


Based in large part on my love of the movie Tombstone, I went into this novel expecting disappointment...I didn’t find it. While I don’y think anyone will ever out-Doc the Iceman, the John Henry “Doc” Holiday portrayed by Ms. Russell can be my wingman anytime. *cue big man hug followed by Top Gun theme song*

I thought this was wonderful. People looking for high body counts and for the legendary gunfighter pumping lead into drunken ass stains may find this a bit too slow in the pacing department. I can understand that and so wanted to forearm you with forewarning of the more “literary” route that Russell takes with her tale.

This is a western, but it is a western like The Sparrow was science fiction. This is not an action novel. This is a biography of a tremendously intriguing and charismatic individual. This is Doc Holliday as a man rooted in family and loyalty and possessing an intellect that would have been more comfortable among the aristocracy than the lawmen to whom he hitched his friendship. For what it’s worth, I think he made the right choice in his friends.

From his childhood struggles with a cleft-palate that left him slow to speak until surgery repaired it to the tragic death of his mother from the same tuberculosis that would eventually steal his life. Doc’s compassion and humanity are on full display in this story and there is more of John Henry Holliday in this story than the “Doc” that popular entertainment has shown us.

However, Russell’s greatest accomplishment is that she marries these two aspects together so seamlessly that we see them as a unified whole. To understand Doc Holliday, you must know John Henry and vice-versa. When reading this introspective, myth-stripping portrayal of Holliday, I saw the “Val Kilmer” Doc. He is here.

Some of the extravagance of the legends have been curtailed, but the truth of who he was shines through and I think it makes him far more impressive. Reading the “truth” only made the legends come alive for me more.

I hope that makes sense.

While I am no scholar when it comes to Doc Holliday biographies, I would certainly place this as the finest novel on the man that I’ve ever read. Both entertaining and beautifully written with relationship that will elevate you and cause you heart pain. Russell’s characters live and breathe and seem to step right off the page. They feel real even when they are performing events that will be forever recorded in the annals of American myth/history.

It’s a story of friendship, loyalty, perseverance, character and life lived to its fullest and on its own terms.


**Footnote: Sam Gilman played Doc in the classic ST:TOS episode “Spectre of the Gun” and so I couldn’t pass up the chance to give him a shout out.

...or to show Kirk and the boys going heeled.
Profile Image for Jaline.
444 reviews1,608 followers
July 27, 2018
Note: This is the first of a two-part 'series' that continues, and ends with Epitaph.

From the Author’s Note: “Arriving at the end of historical fiction today, the modern reader is likely to wonder, ‘How much of that was real?’ In this case, the answer is: not all of it but a lot more than you might think.”

John Henry (Doc) Holliday and the Earp brothers (Wyatt, James, Virgil, and Morgan especially) have had songs written about them, movies and TV mini-series about their lives, and hundreds upon hundreds of other stories from newspapers, first-hand accounts clear through 22nd-hand accounts and beyond - all written about what they did and who they were. Many of those stories were exaggerated because the times and places of those stories relied on hyperbole to sell newspapers, booklets, pamphlets, and later – movie tickets and TV advertising.

Not all the stories are stretched, however, and some writers and screen-writers did make attempts to portray a more accurate interpretation of the lives and times of these men. It takes a great deal of determination and in-depth research to sift fact from fiction and fiction from over-blown facts. The majority of these stories also depict only fully-grown characters – legends who stepped out of the Grand Nowhere known as the Wild West fully formed, fully armed, and (usually) dangerous.

Mary Doria Russell takes a different approach in this book, and by allowing us inside the young lives of these men, particularly John Henry Holliday, we can actually feel and experience the family backgrounds, the geography, and the political and economic climate they emerged from.

Later on, John Henry Holliday, on the verge of beginning a promising career as a dental surgeon, was diagnosed at the age of 22 with pulmonary tuberculosis. It was strongly recommended that he re-locate from his Georgia home to a drier climate. His first move was to Texas, and shortly afterward he moved to Dodge City in Kansas, and then on to Tombstone in Arizona. There were other, shorter stops in-between but the bulk of his 15 year adult life was spent in Dodge City and Tombstone, battling the disease that had also claimed his beloved mother far too young.

Just as no-one is born fully-formed, no-one with any future ahead is born without particular lessons to learn and hardships to endure. This is where Ms Russell’s writing shines. These characters became so real to me, and the times they lived in so vivid that their world became my own. The complexities of this time in history – wild, unbridled vice and mayhem in one area of the country juxtaposed with beautiful symphonies, great literature, and scientific advancements in another area of the country – underlined how time and place could do much to determine any person’s quality of life.

John Henry Holliday only wanted to be a dentist and help people to be free of pain while living among his own family. Fate sent him off into the wild where he had to learn to fend for himself and make a life for himself while struggling to stay alive – in more ways than one. His story, as told by Mary Doria Russell, moved me deeply. I was touched by his relationships with others – both friend and foe – and I was amazed by the experiences the people in this book lived through. Their reasons for living where and how they did were as varied as the characters themselves and completely fascinating and relatable.

This book, while complete in itself, is part one of a duo based largely on his life which also included the Earp brothers, his closest friends. Epitaph is part two of this saga and carries the story forward to the time period that Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers were in Tombstone. It is my next read and I can’t wait to start!
Profile Image for Andy Marr.
Author 2 books716 followers
September 28, 2022
An absolutely stunning novel!

Now for Russell's follow-up, 'Epitaph'...
Profile Image for Kemper.
1,390 reviews6,828 followers
April 25, 2016
"I’m your huckleberry."
- Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone

I’m far the first person to bring up Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc in the movie when reviewing this book, but it’s hard to avoid the comparison other than just the obvious fact that they’re both stories about the same man. Much like Tombstone embraces the legend of a dying drunken dentist turned gambler with a talent and taste for gun fighting but also adds unexpected depths thanks in large part to Kilmer’s performance, the book speculates about the man behind the myth and creates a tragic figure with a lot of admirable qualities.

The book moves us briskly through the early part of John Henry Holliday’s life as the son of aristocratic Southerners before the Civil War to the promising young man who seems poised to make his mark as a talented dentist before being given a delayed death sentence from tuberculosis. Seeking to extend his life Holliday travels to Texas, and when dentistry can’t pay the bills his skill at poker does. That’s where Doc meets Kate, the lady who will be both his loyalest ally and greatest tormentor, and she convinces him to move to the Dodge City, Kansas, which is booming thanks to the cattle herds being driven up from Texas.

Doc becomes a local fixture in Dodge, meeting many people and making interesting new friends like Morgan Earp. When a young man is killed in a stable fire most of Dodge just thinks that it is a tragic accident, but Doc suspects a more sinister motive behind the man’s death. This gives him something in common with Wyatt Earp who also has reasons to think foul play may have been involved. As Doc deals with his on-going illness and Kate’s tantrums Wyatt tries to keep the peace and navigate Dodge’s murky political waters. A bond eventually forms between the two man with the stoic Wyatt being amazed at the intelligence and sheer force of will that the sickly dentist exhibits while Doc is impressed with the law man’s honesty and integrity.

One of the more interesting things about this book is addressed in the author’s afterward in which Mary Doria Russell notes:

"When Homer sang of Troy and Virgil wrote of Carthage and Rome, no one expected a bright line to divide myth from history. Arriving at the end of historical fiction today, the modern reader is likely to wonder, 'How much of that was real?' In this case the answer is: not all of it but a lot more than you might think."

Russell goes on to explain what is fictional while laying out some of the things she drew on for the real, and it's obvious that she did a lot of homework to bring Doc and Dodge City to life. However, it's the bit about what modern readers expect in historical fiction that caught my attention because that's usually the first question I'll ask when finishing a book like this. Now I'm wondering if that's how I should approach stories where the myth has so overshadowed the real people and events that it's almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. Especially in one where the players have alternately been idealized or demonized to suit the purposes of whoever was telling the story at the time.

Doc Holliday has been written about in histories and historical fictions as well as being portrayed on screen countless times, and he's been painted as a bloodthirsty scoundrel, a man of honor, a murderer, and a loyal friend, and sometimes he was all of these at once. When a character has been played by multiple famous actors and even appeared on an episode of classic Star Trek it gets hard to know what to think about the guy. Even a close study of the historical facts as we know them leaves a lot open to interpretation.

So how do we tell stories about a guy like Doc Holliday? As they said in another western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the truth becomes legend, print the legend."

That’s precisely what’s been done here with this fascinating account that is equal parts historical fiction, western, character study, and just an all-around well-written book that is so elegantly told that it might be called delicate despite its rough frontier setting. Doc is the focal point, of course, but the shifting viewpoint also puts us into the thoughts of most of the major characters. By the time it’s all done you’ll understand exactly what who they are and want they want in this particular version of their story.

One oddity is that despite the main character being known as a gunfighter and taking place mostly in one of the wildest cow towns of the era is that this isn’t filled with shoot-em-up action in the same way that Tombstone is. It's closer to Lonesome Dove, and some of it feels like HBO’s Deadwood. In the end, this is good enough on its own to make even the obvious comparisons feel a bit lame, and I’ll be checking out it’s follow-up, Epitaph, in the near future.

This book definitely was my huckleberry.

Note: I rewrote parts of this review on 2/6/16 because some of the comments I got made me think I wasn't sufficiently clear in what I was trying to say about the difference between writing a history and a historical fiction, and I thought I was potentially misrepresenting what Mary Doria Russell wrote in her author's note. I've tried to clarify that by including her quote and expanding on my own thoughts on the matter.
Profile Image for Melissa ♥ Dog/Wolf Lover ♥ Martin.
3,469 reviews9,633 followers
August 1, 2016
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

This book is an historical fiction book. There are many things that are true historical facts wrapped around some great fiction by the author. There are a couple of mentions of Tombstone in the book, but this is mostly about Dr. John Henry Holliday's (Doc) life as a child and then growing up to become a great dentist and living in Dodge City.

I really enjoyed all of the things I learned about this man and I can't help myself in picturing Doc and the gang in Tombstone. It's still one of my favorite movies, because of Val Kilmer's role. In reading THIS book, the parts that had Doc conversing was a dead ringer for him in the Tombstone movie.

I felt really bad for Doc (or anyone) having tuberculosis. All Doc wanted to do was to be a wonderful dentist. Although, he became a card man, a gunfighter, and whatever else you want to call him, he was a very respectable acting man in real life.

When he arrived in Dodge City in 1878 Dr. John Henry Holliday was a frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who wanted nothing grander than to practice his profession in a prosperous Kansas cow town. Hope-cruelest of the evils that escaped Pandora's box-smiled on him gently all that summer. While he lived in Dodge, the quiet life he yearned for seemed to lie within his grasp.

I was hoping there was going to be more about Doc and Wyatt's friendship. Well, Doc was friends with all of the Earp's but it's mostly about Kate and Doc. I just didn't like her in this book at all. There are some scenes with Wyatt but I would say more with Wyatt's brother Morgan.

One of Doc and Wyatt's good friend John Horse Sanders was burned up in a barn fire in the book. Doc identified him for sure by his dental work. But Doc also found a blunt force trauma to the back of his head and he knew that John had been killed. No one would look into it though, until later when Wyatt came to town. Doc eventually finds out what happened and it's a shame, but those were the days.

Doc was a very interesting character and a very nice man to the people most made fun of or just
plain ignored. He didn't put up with any stupidity either though.

Overall I enjoyed the book and really loved reading about Doc, I think there should be more books written about him. "You will always be a daisy, Doc."



"Let us consider the plight of the rattleshake," Doc suggested softly, eyes on the cards. "The rattlesnake is feared and loathed, and yet he has no claws, no legs. He does not look for fights and gives fair warning if he is threatened, but if he is attacked, he cannot flee. All he has is his mouth . . ."

Partly, it was the fancy way he talked. Partly, it was the slow, slurry sound of Georgia. Mostly, it was just that the dentist didn't think like anybody else. Wyatt looked away and back again. "I don't know what in the hell you're talking about, Doc."

MY BLOG: Melissa Martin's Reading List
Profile Image for Candi.
614 reviews4,642 followers
October 10, 2018
"To sell newspapers, the journalists of his day embellished slim fact with fat rumor and rank fiction; it was they who invented the iconic frontier gambler and gunman Doc Holliday. (Thin. Mustachioed. A cold and casual killer. Doomed, and always dressed in black, as though for his own funeral.)"

I have a lot of respect for an author that tries to set the facts straight, and that is exactly what Mary Doria Russell did here with this piece of interesting historical fiction. There are a myriad of wild stories and legends surrounding Dr. John Henry Holliday, otherwise known as Doc Holliday. According to Russell in the author’s note: "Arriving at the end of historical fiction today, the modern reader is likely to wonder, ‘How much of that was real?’ In this case, the answer is: not all of it but a lot more than you might think." This book briefly introduces us to Doc as a young boy, the educated son of an affluent Georgia planter who later studies dentistry, a ‘respectable profession for a gentleman.’ The main focus of this novel, however, is the time Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, the years prior to those legendary events in Tombstone, Arizona. We also meet the famed Earp brothers as well as Mária Katarina Harony, simply called Kate, or Big Nose Kate (behind her back, of course.) Raised in the imperial court of Mexico and well-versed in several languages, Kate was forced to flee to the United States for political reasons. Her life then turned in a downward spiral, forcing her into the one profession that allowed her to remain standing on her own two feet – prostitution. In Dodge City, Doc will set up a dentistry practice by day and play cards by night. Much of his drinking, I learned, was attributed to his tuberculosis. Bourbon was a means of quieting a cough and dulling the pain. There is also a mystery surrounding the death of a mixed race boy named Johnnie Sanders. This intrigued me, but unfortunately seemed to get lost in the many other threads within this book, resurfacing only on occasion as a reminder that the case was still not solved.

I am a huge fan of Mary Doria Russell – I adored her science fiction novels, The Sparrow and Children of God. As a result, I had very high expectations for this book. While I did come away from this one feeling like I had learned a lot more and cleared up many of my pre-conceived notions of Doc, I did not find myself fully engaged. Why that is, I am not completely sure… I’m just going to ramble a bit about that as I think and write. I certainly enjoy an excellent western from time to time – maybe I set the bar too high when I think of my all-time favorite, Lonesome Dove. I know it’s not fair to compare with THAT western, but I admit that I can’t get it out of my head when reading in this genre. There were a lot of characters in this book, and Russell does a very good job of developing them, but I didn’t necessarily care too deeply about any of them. Nor did I dislike any of them. In reading a western, I typically get wrapped up in the grand, sweeping landscapes. Not so here. I think perhaps I spent too long inside the saloons and gambling rooms this time around. I’m not much of a card player, gambling does not interest me; therefore I was a bit bored during what should have felt like the more tense and exciting poker and faro scenes. I wanted to ride horses, shoot guns, and have even more run-ins with the law! Okay, I admit the ending was rather exciting and did leave me satisfied!

I am definitely an outlier here. So, please read more reviews and decide for yourself if this is a book for you or not! Personally, this one gets 3.5 ‘interesting but not hugely compelling’ stars.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,767 followers
November 5, 2013
If you follow me Goodreads, you’ll know I’ve been struggling with the book club I joined last spring. I’ve disliked, vigorously, four of six books we’ve read thus far. My reading philosophy forbids wasting time on books that don’t capture me in their opening chapters, but I’ve had to bend my rules to honor book club commitments. Number Five—a memoir—fared better, but only by a thread. Number Six was my pick. I loved it. I feel sheepish because it was my selection, but after months of insufferable duds, I went after an author I adore.

Enter Lucky Number Seven. Last month one of our club members selected Doc by Mary Doria Russell for our November read. Cue inner cheer and moan. Russell has been on my “must-read” list for eons. Okay, truth. She felt like one of those writers I should read. But the spark hadn’t lit. A book club obligation seemed like a good way to tick the Mary Doria Russell author box. But, God, a WESTERN? Do I have to read a book about Doc Holliday? Seriously? Sigh.

O vos pusillae fide

He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.

And from that sentence forward, I was spellbound. I have a new writer crush (sorry Jess Walter, you’ve been displaced. Love ya, babe).

Doc is based on a very brave conceit. Russell takes an element of our collective cultural imagination—the sepia-toned Wild West—and gambles that we’ll embrace her rendering of its most iconic figures and places. Or that we'll even care about one more depiction of the Earp boys and world-weary, hack-a-lung Doc Holliday. What Ms. Russell needs to know is that she touched this reader, who had to go out of her way to pick up a novel set in the American west, with some of the most sublime storytelling I’ve read.

John Henry Holliday was born in 1851 to a well-off Georgia planter and his genteel wife. Afflicted with a cleft palate, John Henry was saved from shame and unimaginable pain by his uncle, a dental surgeon, who repaired the infant’s ruined face. The boy was just fifteen when his beloved mother, Alice, died from pulmonary tuberculosis, the same disease that would suck the life out of John Henry twenty-one years later.

Alice had just enough time to instill in John Henry a thirst for erudition, a love of music and a unique degree of compassion that John Henry displayed as an adult to prostitutes, horses and taciturn lawmen in need of dental care.

Holliday became a dental surgeon at twenty-one and was stricken with tuberculosis the same year. He boarded a train for the West, in search of drier climes. By twenty-two he was a heavy drinker and gambler. By twenty-six he was a frontier legend, with a permanent limp from a gunshot wound and a multi-lingual Hungarian aristocrat-turned-prostitute on his arm. And he hadn’t yet set foot in Dodge City, Kansas.

But follow Mary Doria Russell there, as she takes Doc to his single season of happiness. She will prove to be a cracker-jack guide—nimble, sophic, soulful. Doc is a character study, with its title protagonist the sun around which a host of personalities spin. Russell sinks the reader into the skin of her characters-and there are heaps, as evidenced by The Players section which prefaces the narrative. But it’s Doc as the sun, Kate Harony, his companion, as the moon, and Wyatt Earp as the grounded Earth who make this universe breathtaking and epic.

Russell creates a world that will consume each of your senses until you are wiping the Kansas grit from your skin, gasping at the sweet-sour burn of bourbon in your throat, pausing to wonder at the beauty of a prairie sunrise, cringing at the wet iron scent of fresh blood, and hearing the crack of gunshot and drumming of hooves as Texas boys pound into town for a night of cards and whores. The details of time and place are artfully offered without ever being cliché. We know this world—we grew up on these legends—yet Russell brings freshness to the American frontier. It’s not retread. It’s raw and unaffected worldbuilding.

The narrative is a slice of Doc’s life—outside the brief chapters chronicling his early years and an even shorter Epilogue, Doc is April 1878 to April 1879. It’s the year Doc spent in Dodge City, Kansas, endearing himself to Wyatt, Morgan and James Earp, an Austrian priest, an Irish entertainer, a Chinese entrepreneur, not a few prostitutes (though Kate was his only lover) and making enemies with just about everyone else. Russell weaves in a subplot—the suspicious death of a young faro dealer of black and Indian heritage early in the story. The investigation of the boy’s death becomes the linchpin of the story, allowing us to witness the players and politics at work in Dodge City.

This is as fine a work of historical fiction as I any I have read. I’m not well-versed in literature of the American west, but I have taken Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Louise Erdrich and Cormac McCarthy out for a spin. Doc slips easily into the tremendous canon of these writers.

The moment I turned the final pages of the Author’s Note I hopped lickety-split to Mary Doria Russell’s website, where she had announced the very same day (yesterday!) that the sequel to Doc, entitled Epitaph will be released early 2015. And she’s committed to writing a novel about Edgar Allen Poe. Oh, we lucky readers!

Doc makes up in spades for the months of dreary book club reads which preceded it. Mary Doria Russell, you are my huckleberry.
Profile Image for Matt.
919 reviews28.3k followers
April 26, 2016
Mary Doria Russell’s Doc is an audaciously modest novel. Its subject, John “Doc” Holliday is a footnote to a footnote in history, a supporting character in the overblown and lethal tableau known as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” The Hollywood Holliday is a supporting actor, educated, literate, and lethal, a scenery-chewing contrast to the taciturn Wyatt Earp. Think Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp, or Val Kilmer (at his career best) in Tombstone. These portrayals are fun, but work best in small doses. You wouldn’t want to base an entire movie around a guy with a hair-trigger spouting quippy one-liners. Or maybe you would. I guess that depends on how you feel about 80s action movies.

Russell turns that image of Holliday on its head. Instead of a Latin-quoting gunslinger with death wish, she presents a sensitive, classically educated (still Latin-quoting) young dentist trying to live with the mortal diagnosis of tuberculosis (which killed his beloved mother) that haunts his every step.

Doc begins with a marvelous prologue that briskly, and beautifully, traces Holliday’s life from his birth in 1851 to the day in 1878 that he arrives in Dodge City, Kansas, where the novel begins in earnest. Russell begins with one hell of an opening hook: “He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.” It’s the kind of opening line that demands that you read on. This bravura sequence reminded me of the first ten minutes of Up. It efficiently and movingly tells you everything you need to know about the main character: his attachment to his mother; his love of learning; his terror of the disease that would claim his life; and his deep desire for friendship.

With his mother’s devoted care, the two-month-old came through his operation [for a cleft palate] well. The only visible reminder of the birth defect was a scar on his upper lip, which would give his smile a crooked charm all his life. His palate, on the other hand, remained unavoidably misshapen, and when the toddler began to talk, Alice was the only one in the world who could understand a thing he said. Truth be told, everybody but his mamma suspected the boy was a half-wit, but Alice was certain her son was as bright as a new penny, and mothers always know.

So she shielded John Henry from his father’s embarrassment and shame…She studied Plutarch on the education of children, and with Demosthenes as her guide, Alice Jane set out to improve her child’s diction…

Unfortunately, the first 24 pages are so good, they end up being the best in the book. This is not to suggest some sharp drop in quality. Rather, it is a reflection on the story that Russell chooses to tell. Doc has nothing to do with brief, violent gunfight that made Holliday immortal. The main storyline, after the prologue, takes place entirely in Dodge City, before Holliday moved down to Tombstone, Arizona. (I think this is important to note, in order to manage expectations). And while Dodge City was certainly a wild and rambunctious town – populated by card sharps, cowboys, and whores – Russell unspools her tale in minor key. This is a novel in which not a lot happens. Some of the set pieces include a lavish wake, a horserace, and a dental procedure that Holliday performs on Wyatt Earp. Not exactly horse opera material. The writing is enjoyable, the dialogue snappy, but there's not a lot of conflict, or friction, or dramatic stakes. One is tempted to compare this to Seinfeld, a well written show also seemingly about nothing. There are, at the very least, roughly the same number of gunfights.

Doc is mainly a character study. Holliday is first and foremost, of course, but Russell’s inquisitive, omnipresent third-person narrator finds a lot of other people to follow, and to understand. The real-life characters include Holliday’s high-maintenance Hungarian lover Maria Katarina Harony, who helps Holliday find high-stakes poker games and is the only one capable of matching intellects with him. There is, of course, Wyatt Earp, who is presented less as a square-jawed law-and-order man, than a fussy, insistent moralist with bad teeth. The deepening friendship between Wyatt and Holliday is oddly endearing, as both men are drawn to each other, without really understanding why. Despite Russell’s efforts at humanizing him, Wyatt is sort of a drag. Thankfully there are Wyatt’s brothers, Morgan (who is also close friends with Holliday) and James (who runs a brothel).

The nonfictional characters work better than the fictional one. Russell, for instance, introduces an Austrian Jesuit who feels entirely fake whenever he walks onto Russell’s otherwise meticulously recreated bygone world. One exception is Jau Dong-Sing, who owns the Chinese laundry. His inclusion allows for a window into the underexplored experience of the Chinese in the founding of America. Russell is fantastic at presenting a diversity of viewpoints, which is less an act of political correctness and more an act of historical correctness.

As I noted above, this isn’t a novel intent on getting somewhere. There is no central narrative. No rising action. No big climactic moment. This is more a collection of people, a sharing of their stories. Sometimes they connect and intersect; sometimes their threads meander off by themselves. Doc is a bit like an Old West version of Winesburg, Ohio. Russell keeps a low-grade murder mystery simmering in the background, but it never comes to a boil. She checks in with the local politics, without ever seeming too interested in the result. This isn’t a book about incident; it is a novel of observation.

The American West is fertile soil for big novels with bigger themes, with numerous ways to explore them. There is the dystopian stylization of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or the violent, allegorical mythologizing of Blake’s In the Rogue Blood; there is the hard-bitten deconstruction in Meyer’s The Son, and the simultaneous mythologizing and deconstruction of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.

Doc doesn’t have that same ambition. It is quiet and subtle and nuanced. I’m not sure if it won’t be too quiet and subtle and nuanced for some. I’ll confess there were times I was on the fence.

Russell’s follow-up, Epitaph, is already on shelves, and I’ll be interested to see how her style lends itself to the culminating events of this saga.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,868 reviews16.5k followers
July 6, 2019
Doc by Mary Doria Russell would be a fun book even if it was an adventure as prologue to Tombstone.

Truth be said, as I read the book, the dialogue between the characters took the voice of the cast of the 1993 film, especially Doc Holliday portrayed as Val Kilmer. Russell herself said that this was not so much for the adventure of writing about famed gunslinger Holliday, or even writing a revisionist tale to be more historically accurate.

In some sense she has done both.

Russell said that she was writing a book about Alice Holliday’s son, and she did this marvelously well. The Doc Holliday that coughs and drinks and drawls his Georgia accent across the pages of this novel is a three dimensional human character, likable the way any real person is, a mixed assortment of strengths and weaknesses and a mixed bag of good, bad and ugly. Russell’s characterization is a talent to be envied, the players come alive and the interactions are rich with complexity. She tells the tale in an omniscient, omnipresent narration that uses western idioms and local color to further paint the portrait of the 1870s west.

Tombstone is one of my favorites films, I own the DVD and have watched it dozens of times and she lifts several lines directly from movie. Although this was fun for me, I did find it somewhat distracting and in a way lessened the artistic achievement.

All in all a very good read.

Profile Image for Amanda.
282 reviews315 followers
June 23, 2014
A youth in the South. An education in the North. Bred for life in the East. Trying not to die in the West.

This synopsis of the life of John Henry "Doc" Holliday is elegant in its simplicity and perhaps holds more truth about his life than the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about him.

I will confess that my earliest exposure to Doc Holliday was Val Kilmer's excellent portrayal in Tombstone. I have probably watched that movie in its entirety no less than 15 times; however, I've always known that, as is true with so much history, it's a super-charged, testosterone fueled, balls out version of events that plays up the romanticism of the Old West and made giants of common men in uncommon circumstances. Unlike so many movies and books about him, Doc by Mary Doria Russell is not interested in perpetuating the reputation of Doc Holliday as a cold-blooded killer and a ruthless gambler, but instead focuses on trying to restore humanity to a man whose world was broken by war and sickness and shaped by the luck of the draw.

Doc is not a biography, but instead a fictional account of Doc's life from birth up through his years in Dodge City, where Russell imagines the circumstances that would cement his friendship with the Earp brothers. Using the framework of Wyatt and Doc's friendship with the fictional John Horse Sanders and the mysterious circumstances of his death, Russell explores the lives of John Henry Holliday, dentist by day, gambler by night; his tempestuous and fiercely intelligent companion, Kate Harony; a reticent and doggedly honest Wyatt Earp; Mattie Blaylock, already ruined and addicted to laudanum when she enters Wyatt's life; the friendly and intelligent Morgan Earp; the vain Bat Masterson. In doing so, she brings the society of Dodge City to life and vividly paints a portrayal of a town at the edge of the American frontier where the law had no finer points other than "Don't shoot the customers." Lawmen like Wyatt Earp were expected to do little more than keep the drovers who came to Dodge at the end of a cattle drive from killing each other before they could spend the season's wages on whores, alcohol, and gambling. While Dodge prospered, there was a ruthless, mean edge to its economic principles.

Born to Georgian aristocracy, classically educated, trained as a dentist, raised for the life of a gentleman, and already diagnosed with tuberculosis, a town like Dodge should have consumed a man like Doc Holliday who seemed so ill-suited to a rough-and-tumble lifestyle. Instead, Doc's recognition of life as the ultimate gamble ("Bein' born is craps . . . How we live is poker") served well in equipping him with the ability to make the most of a poor hand. Suffering from a cleft palate that his uncle repaired once the baby became healthy enough, Doc had been born struggling to cling to whatever life chance would allow. This resilience, along with a sharp tongue and an intellectual's curiosity, helped sustain him during his exile West and enabled him to make a family of friends to substitute the one he longed for back East.

Russell also reminds us of the Doc Holliday that existed beneath the swagger and bravado--a man, little more than a boy, who knew he walked in death's shadow, but was determined not to allow death to claim its prize too soon. The pain of Doc's circumstances, especially in a town where young men treated life so carelessly as they courted danger, is evident: "Certain that if he were to move at all--even slightly, even to speak--everything human in him would be lost to blind, bestial, ungovernable rage, John Henry Holiday sat silently while in the coldest, most analytical part of him, he thought, If I go mad one day, it will be at a moment like this. I will put a bullet through the lung of some healthy young idiot just to watch him suffocate. There you are, I'll tell him. That's what it's like to know your last breath is in your past. You won't ever get enough air again. From this moment until you die, it will only get worse and worse."

Doc is not a fast-paced book, but it is a beautiful one. Often funny, philosophical, and gritty, it honors the men and women at its core and removes them from the lofty heights of myth and returns them where they belong--firmly on the earth they walked not as titans, but as mortals.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder and at Shelf Inflicted
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,510 followers
April 3, 2016
This was a perfect novel for me. Russell brings to life a wonderful version of Doc Holiday as a man trying his best to play the “bad hand” of slowing dying from TB and of his friend Wyatt Earp as a man with a Boy Scout core compromised by family loyalties and a temper triggered by his hatred of bullies. The first page sets the context of this tale by minimizing some stereotypes:

“At thirty, he would be famous for his part in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. A year later he would become infamous when he rode with Wyatt Earp’s side to avenge the murder of Wyatt’s younger brother Morgan…Journalists invented the iconic frontier gambler and gunman Doc Holliday. (Thin, mustachioed. A cold and casual killer. Doomed, and always dressed in black, as though for his own funeral.).”

This book is about the earlier sojourn of Holliday and the Earps in Dodge City, Kansas, where Holliday, in his early 20’s, moved in 1878 from Georgia to improve his lung health. It is not an action story, but more of an existential character study and an exploration of the meaning of the “West” in transition away from the wild frontier toward modern culture through the forces of commercial interest and venal politicians.

Dodge is a bustling cow town that grew from the business brought by numerous cattle drives reaching a nearby railroad terminus. The business of supply stores, hotels, and banking mixes with that of bars, gambling, and prostitution, with a serious investment in law enforcement to keep the rowdy cow men in check. Doc works hard to establish a dental practice, but he finds his cultured lifestyle calls for gambling at cards to generate a more steady income. His weakness and diminutive stature leads him to draw upon his gun skills to ward off violence from sore losers. The following captures Doc’s character as a pragmatic man at his core, adapting to challenges in living in this era:

“John Henry Holliday believed in science, in rationality, and free will. … Above all, he believed in practice, which increased predictability and reduced the element of chance in any situation.
The very word made him feel calm. Piano practice. Dental practice. Pistol practice, poke practice. Practice was power. Practice was authority over his own destiny.
Luck? That was what fools called ignorance and laziness and despair when they gave themselves up to the turn of a card and lost, and lost, and lost, and lost.” Along with destiny and Providence, “John Henry Holliday believed in none of them.”

He is starved for people to share his interests in culture and the arts, and the coverage of his friendships in this cultural wasteland the most satisfying aspect of this novel to me: his prostitute companion from an aristocratic family in Mexico, who speaks Latin and several other languages; Morgan Earp, who reads Dostoevski and Dickens; and an Austrian priest, who shares his love of classical music and philosophy. With a Chinese businessman he shares an honor of family, from which they are both separated from. And with Wyatt he shares a respect for justice, intolerance of bullies, and love of fine horses. Russell excels as usual in dialog. Here are some samples, tucked away in case you consider sharing them a spoiler:

The novel continues the trajectory of Russell’s path of excellence in creating full-bodied tales in very diverse spheres (I have had the pleasure two of her four others). The book jacket makes it clear that she is well qualified for this book’s subject, both as the daughter of a sheriff in Illinois and as a gross anatomy teacher at a dental school in Ohio.
Profile Image for The Shayne-Train.
363 reviews90 followers
January 14, 2014
I will preface by saying: I expected this to just be a cowboy story.

I should not have. I have read The Sparrow by the same author, and found it to be a deep, touching story about faith and aliens and atrocities and recovery. But still, Doc is the story of Doc Holliday, so I simply expected a cowboy story; a rough-ridden, yee-haw, get along little dogie, bang bang, lookee here pardner cowboy story.

And what I got was a beautifully written, thoroughly researched, and deeply touching portrait of a man who spent most of his short life dying. The characters, some familiar and some not, were memorable, nuanced, and written so well it amazed me.

This IS a cowboy story. There are whores and whiskey, drovers and poker, flat Kansas horizons and hard-faced farmers. And this will be the by-God prettiest cowboy story you'll ever read.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,469 reviews565 followers
March 2, 2019
Russell is a skilled writer and I can see why this might be a 4 or 5 star book for some readers but I'm stopping at page 150. I assume eventually there will be some drama and action, but I am too bored with the poker games and minute details of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp's life to continue.
Profile Image for Carol.
353 reviews330 followers
June 11, 2016
Delightful audio by one of my favorite narrators, Mark Bramhall. He's so superbly skilled with a beautiful voice and range. It's a wonderful story and he took me there.
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,738 reviews14.1k followers
May 23, 2011
A wonderful well written book. Entertaining and filled with vivid descriptions of Dodge, its lawlessness and the people who lived there. Would have liked to have met Doc Holliday, the Mastersons and the Earps.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,738 reviews1,469 followers
January 21, 2013

I chose to read this book because I very much liked Mary Doria Russell's novel A Thread of Grace. I enjoy historical fiction, but not science fiction, the genre of several other of the author's books. True, I was not terribly interested in a cowboy story, but in a good author's hands almost any topic is interesting. So I was willing to give this a chance. I am glad I read the novel, but I do not believe it matches up with "A Thread of Grace",

This book is not primarily about the 1881 shoot-out in Tombstone, Arizona, but it is about the same individuals of this event and following events. It is about the personalities of Doc Holliday and his flames, Wyatt Earp and his family, and it is about life in Dodge City, Kansas, prior to the gunfight at the OK Corral. It is about life in this place and at this time. It is about saloons, and whore houses and brawls and cowboy life. Life as it was for both women and men in the West. It is very much about dentistry and consumption and cleanliness or lack thereof…… It is also very much about people of different personalities. The book starts with a listing of all the people in the book. My first thought was – how am I going to keep track of all these people?! That is no problem. Each one becomes a real character; each has their own idiosyncrasies. Your heart will bleed for some. You will feel pity for others. You will get angry at some, and you simply nod when some of them make the choices they do because although you personally would never make such choices you do understand why they make these choices. So, character portrayal is very well done.

The author has given us an "Author's Note" that clearly explains what is fictitious and what isn't. She sticks to the known facts as much as possible. I believe in the character portrayals she has drawn. She has done her homework regarding treatment of tuberculosis in the 1800s and of dentistry and off other historical events.

The author is fluent in several languages. She has an appreciation for music and Greek mythology. She throws all these elements into the novel and thus makes the story even more interesting. There is French and Latin and poetry and cowboy songs and classical music and Greek mythology. There are bits about Seminole Indians and the Civil War. There is a lot to suck on.

So what are my complaints? As I said above, and this cannot be termed a complaint, cowboy stories are just not my top reading choice, but this does affects how many stars I will give the book. However sometimes I would think - please, please, please get to the point. The book should have been tightened up a bit. While every sentence in the last few chapters is utterly perfect, the middle chapters were too long and winding. Some of the details were a bit superfluous. But then the wide range of facts will draw a larger reading group……I am giving the stars, and I was bored sometimes.

I ended up feeling: Yup, I liked this book and I am glad I read it. I could have been carried away by the ending and given it more stars, but when you judge a book it is the whole book. Right? I definitely liked the book and can recommend reading it. But hey, it is not a light read. TB is a horrible illness and you will suffer alongside Doc. What a horrible illness TB was. If you read this book, you will come to understand that.
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,909 followers
May 30, 2011
Summer of 1878. The much-too-famous thirty seconds of shooting at the O.K. Corral was three years in the future. Doc Holliday was in Dodge City, Kansas. It was here that he cemented his friendship with the Earp brothers---Wyatt, Morgan, and James. By this time, John Henry "Doc" Holliday was already a dentist, an accomplished pianist, and a formidable opponent at the high-stakes card games. He was also plagued by a nasty case of tuberculosis, which had driven him West for the drier air.

Doc arrived in Dodge City with his girlfriend, the German aristocrat-cum-prostitute, Big-Nose Kate Harony. His intention was to open a dental practice and supplement his income at the card tables. This he did for awhile, but Fate and tuberculosis had other plans.

This is the fictionalized account of how events and personalities converged that summer and fall of 1878, eventually forcing Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers to abandon Dodge City and light out for Tombstone, Arizona. It's also Mary Doria Russell's attempt to put to rest the outlandish legends about John Henry Holliday and the Earp brothers. Doc wasn't a gunslinger or a tough guy or a deliberate trouble-maker. He was a genteel Georgia boy with a classical education. He had a sneaky sense of humor, a weakness for sartorial affectations, and a love of fine literature, beautiful music, and foreign languages. He was also a very sick young man, dependent on his friends for more than just companionship.

I loved learning about late-19th-Century Dodge City. It's a character all in itself, with its messy politics and odd state of lawful lawlessness. The colorful mix of real and fictional characters makes for a rich and often rollicking read. (4.5 stars)
Profile Image for Wayne Barrett.
Author 3 books107 followers
November 10, 2019
Okay, I am altering my review on this one and also giving an apology to the author. My biggest beef was the story ending before the OK Corral event. I had no idea there was a second book coming. In my defense, I don't recall seeing any mention that this was meant to be a two part series. Oh well, that said, I have changed my rating to a 4 and I am now starting the second book.

There were some good moments...a lot of historical events attached to the man that I was not aware of...and some not so good moments...too much side-tracking into the lives of secondary individuals that I could have lived without knowing.

BUT!? how can I expect to be entertained in the least bit by a story about Doc Holidays life in which the gunfight at the OK Corral gets no more than a side note mention at the end of the book???

Yes, yes, I know, and I've read the other reviews, the gunfight story has been romanticized and facts skewed. I understand that and was actually looking forward to finding out the real skinny on what happened there. C'mon! I know the story is meant to show the facts of the mans life without the dime novel dramatics, but at least tell us about the facts. Even if they aren't as exciting as Hollywood would like us to believe, at least it is the recounting of the day in his life which made him famous in the first place. After all, without Tombstone, the Earps, and the showdown with the Clantons, John Henry Holiday is just another you and me. And whether it is the true version or not, who cares at that point?
Profile Image for Genia Lukin.
228 reviews176 followers
May 21, 2011
The force of any book of Mary Doria Russell's, in my mind, is the ability she has to look back on history, and treat the people making it with almost infinite individual compassion.

This is the sort of compassion she brings to bear while writing the story of Doc Henry John Holliday, famous Wild West gunman, dentist, and consumptive.

In one of her earlier interviews, Russell stated that she'd fallen 'in love' with Doc Holliday, and it is clear from the tone of the book that this is very much the case; at least platonically.This is, bar none, the most flattering account of both the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday I can think of. It is so flattering, in fact, that, despite its obviously meticulously researched detail and the realistic feel of the place and time, one has to wonder regarding its genuine historical veracity.

But, whether it is 100% real or not, Russell leaves you with a feel of genuine admiration to the people she writes about, a feel of true and deep empathy to them that carries on a wave of energy from the author to the reader.

Russell's account does not go as far as the notorious fight at the O.K. Corral, and the events following. Perhaps because she doesn't want to spoil her portrait of the man Doc Holliday was with the man he was to become. Yet her portrayal is not one-dimensional; Holliday is a gambler, an alcoholic, though by necessity, a man with a fierce and flaring temper who cannot leave well enough alone, and his judgment, in general, is lacking in prudence to the extreme. Russell does not leave these things out; she simply makes them seem like fringe issues to the larger whole. Which is, in all, not a bad thing.

Russell's tendency to write books which are, at bottom, philosophical, reflects herself in the underlying theme she sets down for the narrative, and maintains throughout; the double lives and identities of an inherently unhappy world. All the people in the book: the whores, the gunmen, the priests, are possessed of secret lives, 'ghost lives', the possibility of what could have been if the world was a better place. If their past was not haunting them. if circumstances were not extreme, and harsh, and pressing. If money wasn't master. The ifs embedded in it are immense, and constant, and very disconcerting.

The other thing which permeates the narrative is the underlying unhappiness of the well-educated, cultured man, alone in what he, himself, views as a wilderness. Russell is very much isolated in her admiration of that education, and the explication of the feeling of weariness that lack of ability to exercise it brings, in the field of American, highly anti-intellectual narrative. She seems entirely willing to come out and say, hands down, that it is a cause of unhappiness to a person to be unable to live, and converse, at the cultural level to which they are accustomed. That it is a lack in others even if they know it not that their world is shallow, tiny, and provincial. That it, too, creates a wall around their existence that they don't even know better than to try and shatter.

Of course, the book is not without its flaws. It's been remarked, and I cofess I must agree, that at times the sheer scope of the narrative turns it from a story into a sort of raconteurish history lesson. That, while still well-written and presented, lends itself to a feeling of distance from the narrative that decreases from its power and emotional pathos. This book is, therefore, no Thread of Grace in the sheer horrifying, humbling, personal nature of its narration and style. Nevertheless, the parts that do get close and personal still retain the ability to convey to the reader the emotions existing in the author's mind, and so the book is not badly damaged.

It is a pity this is not a larger book, which would have given the author more ability to write in detailed, closely-examined scenes rather than broad, sweeping strokes. But, considering the time it took her to write it, we are perhaps lucky we didn't have to wait for it even longer.
Profile Image for Mike (the Paladin).
3,145 reviews1,820 followers
July 31, 2021
This book is a fictionalized biography of Dr. John Henry Holliday, better known as Doc Holliday.

There is no actual "plot" or "storyline" per se here. The book picks up from Doc's youth and proceeds through the loss of his mother and on to the life that inspired the dentist, gambler, gunman many of us are familiar with from western fiction and folklore. As I read the book I came to suspect that the writer wrote the book not only to show more and different sides to the Doc but also to cast him in a more favorable light.

There are a lot of characters and lives we touch on here. The Earps of course but also others. One of the most important of these characters is Mary Katherine Horony Cummings, though that may not have been her real name. She was better known as Big Nose Kate though she didn't have a particularly big nose. She was in fact a fairly attractive "soiled dove". Her name probably came from her tendency to put her nose where it didn't belong... Her effect on Doc's life was a very, very mixed bag for Doc himself. The American west produced a wealth of interesting, unusual and enigmatic characters. Doc Holliday is certainly one of these.

One of the more interesting parts of the book are the side roads we go down now and then, the "might have been" and "if only" roads where other possibilities are considered.

The book is mainly placed in Dodge City prior to the more well known events of Tombstone...and afterward. But the reads that led to those events are here.

This is a good but melancholy book. Then again any book about Doc would have to be the way his life went. From the time he found he had TB to his death in a charity home for TB victims he had his ups and downs. I like the book so far as a read goes. If you're interested in the American west or the character of Doc Holliday I'd recommend this one.
Profile Image for Judith E.
547 reviews191 followers
May 3, 2016
I never thought I would be remotely interested in a book about Doc Holliday, but Mary Doria Russell's research and portrayal of his life makes one outstanding tale. I am gobsmacked that I actually want to read her follow up novel, "Epitaph".
Profile Image for Doug Bradshaw.
257 reviews221 followers
February 11, 2016
I read the two books in reverse order. I probably should have read this book first, not that it really made a ton of difference. Epitaph deals a lot more with the Earp brothers, although Doc is a very important part of that whole story. And what a brilliant and creative author Mary Doria Russell is. The life and personality of Doc Holliday as portrayed here is absolutely fascinating. An accomplished dentist, poker player, a brilliant philosopher, a concert pianist, living among country bumpkins and cowboys with almost no education, all the while fighting advanced stages of consumption/tuberculosis lung disease.

Much of Doc's comments and observations, the dialogue, are brilliant, funny and incredibly insightful. I laughed or got tears in my eyes many times. Having lived part of his life as a virtual orphan, he stands up for every class of person including the Chinese, the downtrodden prostitutes, and others. And the life in Dodge City, a frontier town at the time with gun fights, drunken idiots, corrupt politicians, horse races, cheating, card games and laudanum abuse, feels absolutely authentic and sometimes miserable.

The relationships with the various Earp Brothers and their wives, Doc's relationship with Kate, the feisty educated hooker he ends up with, and several others in the story are very interesting to read about. Times were very different.....and yet, many things are exactly the way they are today, complicated, sacrifices made, especially by women, pushy men getting knocked down sometimes, tougher men putting them in their place. Law and order was manipulated by attorneys and corrupt officials, it all made for great story telling.

But more than anything, I left this book with a love for Doc Holliday, quite the renaissance man. And I'm very impressed with the author and her talents and the hundreds of hours she put in to come up with such a great piece of historical fiction.
Profile Image for Amy Sturgis.
Author 38 books383 followers
April 16, 2011
I received this novel as part of the Goodreads First Reads program.

Mary Doria Russell still has "it," that indefinable storyteller quality that made The Sparrow one of my favorite novels of all time.

In this work of historical fiction, Russell paints a portrait of Doc Holliday's years in Dodge City, Kansas. It's a very compelling and moving story, and in the telling the reader gets to know famous figures such as Wyatt and Morgan Earp, and not-so-famous figures from different races, nationalities, and walks of life. Russell does an exceptional job of revealing the many disparate threads that came together to form the tapestry of the West, from whores and cattlemen to missionaries and runaways. She's at her best allowing the characters to represent different perspectives and underscore various prejudices. When conflicting interests collide in Dodge, the politics are fascinating, and Russell through Holliday gives us a front row seat.

The part of this history I know best -- that is, Native America -- is well handled here, and I applaud the effortless way Russell worked in the important story of John Horse and the Black Seminoles.

Holliday's story is incredibly poignant, as is that of his companion Kate, a Hungarian-born noblewoman-turned-frontier prostitute. I especially appreciated the trouble Russell took to introduce the characters in the front matter (both historical and fictional) and explain in the back matter where she took the greatest poetic license (and why). Russell de-emphasizes the shooting at the OK Corral with good reason, but provides enough information to give closure to Doc's story.

Furthermore, Russell uses Holliday as a window into big ideas (about education, about power, about nobility), and therefore the novel really transcends its genre. In other words, it has something to say even to those who aren't particularly smitten with the history of the West.

Anyone looking for excellent, well researched, thought-provoking fiction that provides both insights about the historical time period and a rewarding journey with a meaningful character will enjoy this a great deal.
Profile Image for Lewis Weinstein.
Author 9 books496 followers
January 29, 2019
I read DOC because I had read Mary Doria Russell's A Thread of Grace, which is magnificent. DOC is also magnificent, an engaging story of Doc Holliday and his friends Wyatt Earp and others, mostly in or near 1878. But it is not a cowboy shoot-em-up. It is a well researched, deeply emotional portrayal of men living a hard life, caring deeply about each other and the women they love, and not really having much chance for a successful conclusion of their lives. Russell captures atmosphere and feeling in a way that, frankly, makes me jealous but also provides a learning experience which I recommend to any writer.
Profile Image for Rick.
193 reviews19 followers
April 25, 2013
If you are not interested in Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and Bat Masterson, don't let that deter you from reading this book. At one level, this book is an attempt, through historical fiction (more history than fiction the author tells us), to present an honest and nuanced portrait of people who to most of us exist, if at all, only as cardboard cutout characters. On another level, the fact that most of the people in this book are real is almost irrelevant; the book would be equally powerful as a work of pure fiction. What the book brings home to the reader is how beauty and culture can be found in the most unusual places, how fickle the fates can be, how class and economic well-being are wholly independent of one another, the many ways people can be inter-dependent, and how powerful sheer dogged determination can be in facing and delaying an inevitable death.

In addition to presenting familiar figures in an entirely new light, this book appealed to me because of the beauty of the writing. While never being too obvious or overshadowing the story, there was a lyrical feel to the writing that was particularly evident in the dialogue. For example, I enjoyed the following exchange, which is set in Dodge City and is between Doc Holliday and a former Austrian prince turned priest:

"Yes. . .Kin and conversation," Doc had agreed before deflecting the talk delicately. "And good music--played well," he emphasized, for somewhere out on Front Street, a Strauss waltz was being hammered approximento. "At my last count, there are nineteen saloons in this town. Seven have pianos, not a single one of which is in tune. I cannot bear to put my hands on any of them."

"You are a pianist, then?" Alex asked.

"Thalberg was a pianist, sir, but I do love to play."

"Thalberg! So you have been to Europe?"

"Regrettably; no. The maestro toured the South when I was a boy."

"I heard Liszt in Paris," Alex said, like a man laying aces on the table.

"They say he changed pianos the way another man might change horses," Doc said, "to keep from wearin' the beasts out."

"And that he played so intensely the very keys would bleed! I can testify that he drove women to frenzy. A young lady sitting next to me wept so, she fainted during a sonata. I preferred Chopin's performances frankly --"

"You heard Chopin?" Doc fell back against the clapboards. "I am prostrate with envy, sir!"

"He played at a private salon one night. I was young, but the evening was unforgettable."

The author also does a brilliant job in using dialogue to flesh out the complicated love/hate/co-dependent relationship between Holliday and his lover/partner Kate, a highly educated and intelligent former member of the European upper class who had fallen on hard times and into prostitution. Her ear for dialogue is just as solid when she is focusing on the conversation between the various men in town.

All in all, this book was a fun and interesting read. While I was not so engaged that I couldn't put it down at night, I was always eager to return to it the next day. The story, the dialogue and the insights into what motivates people to act the way they do kept pulling me back in.
Profile Image for Linda Hart.
733 reviews139 followers
August 4, 2018
Another 5 star book from a truly gifted writer. Highly recommend.

Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,035 reviews48.5k followers
November 24, 2013
If I had a six-shooter (and didn’t work in the District), I’d be firing it off in celebration of “Doc,” Mary Doria Russell’s fantastic new novel about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Since winning top honors for her science fiction 15 years ago, Russell has blasted her way into one genre after another, and now she’s picked up the old conventions of the Wild West and brought these dusty myths back to life in a deeply sympathetic, aggressively researched and wonderfully entertaining story.

“Doc” is no colorized daguerreotype; it’s a bold act of historical reclamation that scrapes off the bull and allows those American legends to walk and talk and love and grieve in the dynamic 19th-century world that existed before Hollywood shellacked it into cliches. (Stay tuned: Next year Val Kilmer will star in “The First Ride of Wyatt Earp.”) With open disdain for those low-down, stinkin’ writers who prefer “well-dressed drama to bare-naked fact,” Russell can evoke plenty of grandeur and hell-raising without squaring every lawman’s jaw and waxing every villain’s mustache to a deadly point. And just to prove it, she mentions that famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral several times in these 400 pages but then draws her story of Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers to a perfect close before they ever get to Tombstone. Take that, dime novels.

“He began to die when he was 21,” Russell writes at the opening, “but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.” The whole novel takes place in the shadow of that death sentence, which Dr. John Henry Holliday postponed with a rough mixture of fury, gentility and bourbon. Born in Georgia in 1851 with a cleft palate, Holliday had already beaten the odds just by surviving infancy, but his wealthy mother was determined that her son would speak like a gentleman and receive the classical education his fierce intellect deserved. He grew up on Virgil and Homer, and from beginning to end Russell casts his tragic life not in terms of Old West myths, but of those far older heroes who were his boyhood models. “The Fates pursued him from the day he first drew breath,” she writes, “howling for his delayed demise.”

How this smart, talented young man constructed his life under these deadly conditions is the true subject of Russell’s affecting novel. Her Doc Holliday is a person of great pride and Southern refinement who finds his ideals shredded by illness and economic necessity. Trained in den­tistry (as opposed to medicine, which at the time was for quacks), he’s determined to relieve the suffering so common among people who have never seen a toothbrush. Problem is, he can make a year’s wages in a good night of card playing, and alcohol is the only thing that keeps those razor-sharp coughs from slicing up his lungs. You can’t help but feel your throat clench in sympathy as he strains for breath.

Although it sometimes reaches back to pre-
Civil War days and refers to events ahead in the 20th century, “Doc” focuses on Dodge City, Kan., in 1878. Russell captures this wildest of the Wild West towns in all its mud-stained virility. “Front Street was alive with young men,” she writes. “Sauntering, staggering. Laughing, puking. Shouting in fierce strife or striking lewd whispered bargains with girls in bright dresses. 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.” This is a town caught in the swift confluence of national changes. Brawling saloons and accommodating whorehouses are locked in a death match with new forces of respectability and temperance, all greased with astronomical sums of money. The “city had a single purpose,” Russell writes, “to extract wealth from Texas. Drovers brought cattle north and got paid cash. Dodge sent them home in possession of neither.”

Into this explosive, oversexed, alcoholic town rides a collection of characters who need no help from Tinseltown to fill their boots. (At the front of the book, there’s an intimidating list of more than 60 players, but don’t let that scare you off.) Russell moves gracefully along two intertwined story lines. One involves Holliday, “snake-slender and casual in fresh-pressed linen the color of cream,” who comes to Dodge for the climate and hopes to set up a new dental practice. His extraordinary companion is Kate Harony, a formidable Hun­gar­ian prostitute with a classical education to match Doc’s (he’s particularly taken with her Latin). Their tumultuous relationship, a mixture of scheming, love and intellectual repartee, serves as the emotional heart of the novel, as they both struggle to be something neither his health nor wallet will allow.

Woven through that sad, romantic tale is the story of Doc���s friend, a young lawman named Wyatt Earp, who “had not smiled since 1855, and didn’t like to say much more than six or seven words in a row.” Drawn to Dodge by the presence of his brothers — one a bailiff, the other a brothel manager — Wyatt takes a job as the deputy marshal only after getting the mayor to agree to his terms: “Somebody breaks the law, I don’t care whose friend he is, I’m taking him in,” he says. “There’s got to be one law for everybody, or I can’t do this job.” In a town that runs on alcohol and corruption, that will prove to be a dangerous principle. But then he turns to his new staff and lays down the rules: “You see any weapon at all, bash whoever’s carrying it. Don’t argue. Don’t explain. Don’t wait.” (John Wayne claimed he based his film persona on Earp, who worked in Hollywood in the early 20th century.)

What’s so beautiful about this novel is the way Russell dismantles rickety legends while reconstructing her own larger-than-life characters on a firmer foundation of historical fact and psychological insight. Playing subtly with the patter of those old westerns, her voice alternately pays homage and pokes fun at them, picking up the cowboy accent, plumbing the real heroism of these men, and enjoying their capacity for tenderness and corniness.

And she’s not content to follow the arc of the old story lines either. The murder of an affable black teenager — one of her few inventions here — provides a thin wire on which to hang the plot, but the mystery of that crime fades into the background through most of these chapters. As though it’s a corrective to 150 years of shoot-’em-up westerns, “Doc” remains daringly free of quick draws or showdowns. Russell can choreograph a tavern brawl or a trigger-finger card game, but far more of this engaging novel is taken up with the day-to-day struggle to keep the peace, encourage one’s friends, and quiet the shame that haunts Doc and Wyatt, two very different men who respect each other’s implacable discipline. While exploring the fluid state of post-Civil War race relations, the seesawing economic conditions of the United States, and the precarious fortunes of sex workers, she keeps the story moving almost entirely by the force of her sensitive characterizations. The gun-slinging confrontations are violent but brief and always marked by Russell’s disarming reminders of the combatants’ pedestrian hopes and concerns. In the middle of one vicious fistfight, Doc yells to Wyatt: “For the love of God! Your teeth!”

I’m in awe of how confidently Russell rides through this familiar territory, takes control and remakes all its rich heroism and tragedy. Clearly, there’s a new sheriff in town. Given her propensity to strike out into radically different subjects, I suspect she’ll mosey on to someplace entirely different next time. But how I wish she’d settle here for a spell and give us a sequel.

Profile Image for Scott Rhee.
1,847 reviews68 followers
February 16, 2014
"Doc", Mary Doria Russell's more recent work of literature, is unique in that it is a biography AND a novel AND a murder mystery. It's not often one reads a book in which the author not only switches up the tone and the style but the genre, as well. What's amazing is that she does it so well and so seamlessly.

Russell de-mythologizes the historical figure of Doc Holliday, turning the well-known gunslinger icon---a figure based mostly on false Hollywood depictions---into the flesh-and-blood man that he was.

I'll be honest, the most I knew about Doc Holliday, prior to this book, comes from movies like "Wyatt Earp" and "Tombstone". Decent movies, to be sure, but probably not the most historically accurate.

It's clear from page one of "Doc" that Russell researched the hell out of this subject. The Doc Holliday of this novel is a true southern gentleman, suffering from tuberculosis, the same illness that killed his beloved mother.

The novel starts in Dodge City, Kansas, where Holliday settled for two reasons:1) the climate, which was more conducive for his consumption, and 2) to set up his dental practice. It is there in Dodge City that he and Wyatt and Morgan Earp strike up a friendship that would last their entire lives and change the course of their personal histories.

Years before the tragic events at the infamous OK Corrall in Tombstone, Arizona, Doc and Wyatt were settling disputes and laying down the law in the bustling town of Dodge City.

One night, a stable burns down to the ground, and the unlucky victim happens to be Johnny, a young Indian stablehand that was unofficially adopted by Wyatt. Doc figures out that the fire was set possibly to hide the fact that Johnny was murdered. Why would anyone kill a stablehand? Was the murder over a woman or money? Or was there much more to it than that? These are the questions that Doc and Wyatt set out to answer.

Along the way, Doc and Wyatt encounter a bevy of fascinating characters: Doc's loyal girlfriend, Kate, a former Hungarian princess turned prostitute; Bat Masterson, the flamboyant sheriff of Dodge City; a German priest who is just as determined to find Johnny's killer as Doc and Wyatt; and a money-savvy Chinaman who owns a laundry service and (unbeknownst to Dodge Citians) nearly half the town's real estate, as well.

Most of these characters are, according to Russell, historically "real" people. Russell simply fills in the historical gaps and turns them into very believable and likable characters. I don't know which characters are true and which are fictional, and I honestly don't care.

Perhaps the most fun about reading "Doc" is the not knowing and just going with the flow. Russell has the smoothest, most energetic prose of any contemporary writer writing today, and she tells a great story. Most importantly, she does what any historian strives to do when writing about a historical figure: she brings Doc Holliday to life.

The story of how such a vibrant, funny, cantankerous, compassionate stick of a man who could barely hold a pistol without getting winded got a reputation as a stone-cold killer is a pure joy to read.

"Doc" is my personal pick for Best Book of 2011.
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