Book Review: ‘Doc’ by Mary Doria Russell


By Rhonda Little

Girls don’t usually write about the wild west. Mary Doria Russell took on the task and succeeded marvelously with Doc which tells the story of Holliday’s childhood and time in Dodge, where his friendship with the Earp brothers began. The book is well-researched, well-written, and the perfect tome to read while you’re waiting for your turn at the gun range . . .

Doc was a gun guy’s gun guy.

Russell’s romantic portrait of John Henry “Doc” Holliday, D. D. S., begins at the beginning. He was born with a cleft palate to an formidable woman who home-schooled him, teaching everything from how to speak correctly in several languages to mathematics, literature, and classical music. He loved her as fiercely as she loved him and watched her slowly die of tuberculosis. The disease took her from him when Holliday was 15. Then it began began killing him at age 21.

Russell says this is the story of a boy who lost his mother. She admits to an unrepentant affection for the man, and her book is a sympathetic telling of his history.

Doc was an asshole. And a weakling. He was sickly. Scrawny. He knew it. But he was also charming and better-educated than nearly everyone he ever met, with the possible exception of his companion Kate, a brilliant misplaced Hungarian whore. He was fiercely southern, and had zero tolerance for racism (this is not an oxymoron). He was cultured, stubborn to a fault, empathetic, and brave to the point of stupidity.

Sickly over-educated piano-playing dentists aren’t really the stuff of legend. Why, then, does everyone know about Doc Holliday? What made him a legendary fighter?

That’s easy: Doc’s weapon of choice was his mind.

He knew his weaknesses, and he was honest with himself. He spent ridiculous amounts of time practicing with both his deck of cards and his weapons. When he was near death, the strength of his grip astonished Wyatt Earp, and in her only known writings, Kate reflected on his hands: they were always strong.

Russell’s novel focuses on Doc’s inner turmoil, his relationships with Morgan Earp (his dearest friend) and his brothers, and the women who shared their worlds.

Fair warning: the women in this book will break your heart. Mattie Blalock and Mary Katherine Harony-Melvin-Fisher-Elder-Cummings, or “Big-Nose Kate” (though no one dared call her that to her face) were unknown legends all on their own, and their strength fueled the men they loved.

Russell’s book illustrates an important thing people who carry guns should remember: You don’t have to be the strongest guy in the room. You don’t have to be packing the biggest hand-cannon. What counts in a crisis is a level head, skill, and intelligence.

A thinking man with a gun is the guy you want on your side. Just ask Wyatt Earp.


  1. avatar El Mac says:

    Thanks for the book tip. I look forward to reading this.

    1. avatar Joseph Quixote says:


  2. avatar Anonymous says:

    Does it tell the story about Wyatt stealing the school fund, horses, and being a pimp (literally)? Not to mention his disarmament ban on firearms in town (except his own of course).

    1. avatar Pulatso says:

      Are you suggesting that when four lawmen came to disarm men protesting a city’s open carry ban (a ban inacted after a death due to an accidental shooting), and it ended with three of the four protesters dead, it was not a heroic battle of good and evil?

    2. avatar Matt in TX says:

      anonymous troll.

  3. avatar 357M28 says:

    Thank you, Rhonda Little. Please write again soon.

  4. avatar B says:

    I consider the Earps to be gangsters representing the East bringing all its garbage from the big cities and ruining the West, but Doc was a badass. He supported his friends and lived like a man should, and I respect that.

  5. avatar 357M28 says:

    It would be an excellent addition if TTAG had a story teller. Sort of like, “same Bat-time, same Bat-hour”. Type of thing.

  6. avatar Tom in Oregon (Sout Africa at the moment) says:

    Excellent. I’m getting the book. I love me some history.
    The old, new west just fascinates me.
    Please. More reviews Ms. Little!

    1. Thank you, Tom! I hope you enjoy the book. Russell is doing the book tour for its sequel, _Epitaph_, which is entirely about the gunfight at (the empty lot near) the O. K. Corral.

      Doc was indeed a badass, and a gentleman. That combination, and the sheer irony of a deathly ill man who was known as “Doc”, make him a mesmerizing historical figure.

      Wyatt is painted with a blunter brush in _Doc_. His interesting moral choices are explained as weakness and the result of a cruel father. Morgan, however, shines as a true gentleman.

      1. avatar Garrison Hall says:

        It’s all too commonplace today to attempt to impose contemporary social values on historical persons and events. When that happens, history is always worse off for it. In contrast, reading about historical figures as they lived in their own contexts is always enlightening. Doc sounds like a good read. Thanks for writing this review.

        1. avatar tdiinva says:


          And a game played by both Progressives and faux Libertarians to discredit the foundations of the American Republic.

  7. avatar Kendahl says:

    She has written other books including one about the OK Corral.

  8. avatar waif says:

    I greatly enjoyed reading “the dog stars,” and will add this one to my list as well. Keep the book recommendations coming!

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      “I greatly enjoyed reading “the dog stars,””

      I’ll second that.

      If you missed it, it looks like the movie is being made.

      1. avatar Matt in TX says:

        looks cool.

  9. avatar Geoff PR says:

    “Doc was an asshole. And a weakling. He was sickly. Scrawny. He knew it. But he was also charming and better-educated than nearly everyone he ever met, with the possible exception of his companion Kate, a brilliant misplaced Hungarian whore.”

    Gee, while accurate, that was a bit harsh about Kate.

    How about ‘friendly personal services entrepreneur’?

    She wasn’t asking for a handout…



    “(Doc Holliday) He was cultured, stubborn to a fault, empathetic, and brave to the point of stupidity.”

    Women have been known to have that effect on men… (Guilty, guilty, what in the HELL was I thinking?) guilty.

    And vice-versa. Nature of the beast, I suspect…

    Got a note in my wallet to look it up at my local library. Oddly enough, older I get, I find history to be far more relevant than I ever would have guessed in my squandered youth.

    Really a pisser the way it’s wasted on the kids.

    1. avatar foo dog says:

      Thanks, Geoff. Thats a good one, too. Movie looks good…like The Road. Only, with a happy ending. Kinda.
      Says here Robert Duvall as Bangley. Tommie Lee Jones as Pops. Yup, two crazy old gun guys.

  10. avatar foo dog says:

    Just a really great review. Just bot on kindle. Thanks!

  11. avatar Bob says:

    Doc Holliday is known for killing several men, but history says that he never killed anyone that didn’t need to be killed. “Some men just need killin’.” I believe every one of his shootings was legally justified.

    I would agree with that philosophy. There are people who just need to be killed, because you can’t let them continue preying on the innocent people around them. Doc understood that, and he trained himself to be the one who would do it when it became necessary.

  12. avatar Andy says:

    Typo alert! Mr. Zimmerman has fallen prey to the old pallette/palate/pallet confusion. A cleft pallette would make it hard to paint…

  13. avatar JohnO says:

    Some girls write about the West; e.g. the late Marie Sandoz, the preeminent historian of the west. TTAG gun guys may particularly enjoy her biography of her father, “Old Jules.”

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