This book by Mary Doria Russell was gorgeously written, fascinating, richly descriptive and thoroughly entertaining. John Henry “Doc” Holliday was just a name I recall from old Tombstone movies so I went into the book unencumbered by myth and legend about the man. All I knew was he was a dentist and was at the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
Russell’s portrait of Doc was extensively researched and described his early childhood in Georgia, his education and upbringing, and the terrible and debilitating tuberculosis that plagued him for his entire short life.
Quoting Virgil, waxing rhapsodic about music and art, his gentle Georgia accent softening his acerbic wit, this Holliday character is more three-dimensional than most we read of in Westerns. Wyatt Earp and his brothers also appear, along with Bat Masterson and a host of rough citizens of Dodge City, Kansas.
Everything in the book takes place before the O.K. Corral and is a fascinating glimpse into the life of an incredible man, his compatriots and the frontier where he went to regain his health and ended up completely separating himself from his southern family and becoming a footnote to American history.
Some memorable gems from the book:
“When the hotheads of Charleston opened fire on Fort Sumter, his Uncle John remarked, “South Carolina is too damn small to be a country and too damn big to be an insane asylum.”
‘The first time John Henry came home bloody, all Alice asked was “Did you win?” Later that evening, she told the story of the Spartan mother seeing her son off to war. “Come home with your shield or on it,” Alice reminded him the next morning when he left for school. His cousin Robert followed that moral lecture with another involving applied physics. “Don’t start nothin’,” young Robert advised, “but if some ignorant goddam cracker sonofabitch takes a swing at you? Drop him, son. Use a rock if you have to.”’
“Wyatt,” the man told him, “the entire criminal code of the State of Kansas boils down to four words. Don’t kill the customers.”