To understand the gunfight in Tombstone, stop-now-and watch a clock for thirty seconds. Listen to it tick while you try to imagine one half of a single minute so terrible it will pursue you all your life and far beyond the grave.
–Mary Doria Russell - Epitaph - c.2015
Mary Doria Russell, the bestselling, award-winning author of The Sparrow, returns with Epitaph. An American Iliad, this richly detailed and meticulously researched historical novel continues the story she began in Doc, following Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday to Tombstone, Arizona, and to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Many years ago, I’m not sure exactly how many, but it was before 2007 I read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, it was chosen as a group read by FantasyFavourites Yahoo Group. And I love it. So much. I bought and read the sequel The Children of God. Loved it too, although not quite so much as The Sparrow. And ever since those books I’ve taken it for granted that if Russell has a book out I should give it a go. But for some reason after I bought Doc it sat on my shelves waiting to be read. And waiting. But then I rewatched Open Range and all of a sudden I was in the mood for westerns1. So I picked up Doc, and really loved it, and then had to buy the sequel, Epitaph, which follows the Earps, Wyatt in particular, as he becomes the legend of Tombstone.
I just love the way Russell tells the story. She knows that her reader is probably familiar with some version of the history. So there is no need to avoid spoilers, instead she uses the readers own knowlesde to build up this horrible, wonderful, tension and expectation as the Earps’ head towards that fateful, fatal day and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. The inexorable march towards doom.
It is awfully sad.
It is also so very beautiful. It tells as balanced a story as may be possible after all this time, and after so much has been written about those events. Even at the time the facts were in dispute. Aren’t they always? And nothing is ever black and white when you are dealing with human interactions. If you are looking for a “bad guys wear black hats” sort of a western then this is not the book for you. Instead it is a book all about how broken people can be, how they can try so very hard to do the right thing and yet still come out doing the exact opposite of that.
Epitaph is also a book that deals with the women of the story, how they dealt with that society, with their lack of power and agency. And then of course with the aftermath, and how people’s lives don’t just end after some big historical event2 but instead have to continue living, earning money, paying their way and dealing with whatever fall-out may result from their actions.
Oh, just go read it.
I’m also tempted to reread Molly Gloss’ wonderful The hearts of horses and Falling from horses but I don’t reread books as often as I used to. Too many new ones calling me away ↩
sometimes they die, and then of course their stories do end ↩