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.