When I was a kid I used to watch a TV program called Wyatt Earp. The theme song was catchy and we sang it at the top of our lungs on the swings at recess. Wyatt Earp was a famous marshall of the Old West, which was sometime before World War II because my dad didn’t know much about it. I knew Wyatt Earp was quirky, because even though he was a good guy, he wore a black hat. And Hugh O’Brien, who played him, was plenty cute. Anyway, one of Wyatt’s sidekicks was Doc Holliday.
As you can plainly see, when I picked up Mary Doria Russell’s novel, Doc, I already had a wealth of knowledge on the subject of Doc Holliday. Or not. I didn’t know that John Henry (Doc) Holliday was born with a cleft lip and palate, and that his uncle and another surgeon repaired the lip when he was two months old…in 1851! Or that he was a Georgia boy, who grew into adolescence with an understandable disdain for Yankees.
Despite his cleft palate, he learned to speak elegantly, and not just in English, either. He was a talented classical pianist. He lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was 15, and his uncle (who took him in when his father remarried immediately) paid his way through a Northern dental school. Another young foster child in the family taught him to play cards. (This was a happy twist of fate, because a dental practice in Dodge City, Kansas, didn’t exactly bring home the bacon, or even the pork’n’beans).
Doc was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 21, and treated his cough with liberal (and frequent) doses of bourbon, and his pain was self-treated with laudanum. I guess that’s why they called it the Wild West: No Robitussin and no Advil!
Although Doc is historical fiction, most of the characters are not. Real or not, they are well-developed, believably flawed and humanly quirky. (If you don’t love Doc, the Earp brothers, China Joe, Eddie Foy and/or Father Alexander von Angensperg, see me after class. I will eat my hat.)
The dialogue sparkles and made me laugh out loud more than once, so I wouldn’t read it on the bus if I were you. While I’m no expert on how much research a writer of historical fiction needs to do, Russell’s research was prodigious. I read the Author’s Note! And I’m not even getting extra credit!
This book is available at the Rochester Public Library in traditional format and for digital e-readers.
For more information on this book, you can follow this link and read an excerpt on the author’s website.