He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.
–Mary Doria Russell - Doc - c.2011
Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp are names that are linked together with gunfights and dust and the US West. In Doc Russell takes a look at their lives away from the O.K. Corral. How they came to know one another and their histories, together and apart. It is a story of violence, gambling, prostitution, dentistry, and tuberculosis, among many other things. And I loved it.
I bought this book back in 2012, when it was released in paperback, because I have loved all Russell’s other books. But for some reason it sat on my shelf. And sat on my shelf, and I never even looked at it. But I spotted it while browsing and decided now was the time. So I picked it up.
And I loved it. So much.
I’m a quasi-fan of the western story. I think it can be a great setting, but it is also such a made-up time and place. Full of stories of hero cowboys and settlers who were responsible for murdering and displacing so many Native Americans. The whole Manifest Destiny thing was just such a horrendous belief that a lot of stories ignore. And too often the stories revolve around the white man, ignoring the women who faced the same, if not more hardships, and using all other races as either supporting cast or the villains of the piece. And this is the story of one of those white men, Doc Holliday, so it could very easily have been one of those stories.
Instead Russell uses Doc to explore the whole society of Dodge City. It is, still, the story of Doc himself, so yes, it does revolve around a white man. But at least here we really get to see a lot of what the women had to go through. And, to a lesser extent, how a black man or a Chinese man, or anyone not a white man, had no value to many.
I really loved the way Holliday points out to Wyatt what he should have realised, that the women of Dodge City, prostitutes or wives, all have stories of their own. Their own past and history, and often those pasts weren’t very pleasant.
It is just such a wonderfully written book that reading Doc felt like being enveloped in the pages. And in such beautifully told, moving story. Yes, there is violence and death, illness and more death, but somehow it was just such an enjoyable read. I am really tempted to begin it all over again, but my Mount TBR will not let me. Not yet. It is a book that I think will seriously reward a reread. And a reread after that.
It will, however, disperse and romantic notions you may have about “the consumption”. In some novels tuberculosis is depicted as almost a romantic death, that is not how it appears here. It is a horrible, painful, miserable death, that follows a painful, distressing illness. And one for which, back then, there was no cure.
As to whether the book is true? Well, that I don’t know, but Russell has done a lot of research and it is certainly true to the spirit of the story. Maybe the facts aren’t always correct, but when are they ever?