by Mary Doria Russell

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Doc by Mary Doria Russell Legends abound of the gunslinging dentist John Henry "Doc" Holliday. As usual, the truth is more intriguing than the stereotype. A young Georgia gentleman whose fledgling dental practice was interrupted by tuberculosis, Holliday went West in 1873 for the dry air and found choking dust as well. He supplemented his meager professional income by playing cards. Bat Masterson, not a friend, pronounced him a good dentist; evidently, Holliday was also a skilled gambler.

Russell's novel takes what is known and likely about Holliday's life and, informed by an inspired and sympathetic imagination, crafts a moving portrait of a man who "began to die when he was twenty-one" of a "slow and sly and subtle" disease. The story centers on his "single season of something like happiness." This blossoms in the wild cow town of Dodge City, Kansas, where he and his companion Kate Harony, born a Hungarian aristocrat, move for the gambling opportunities. "In a low and lovely voice sanded down by cigarettes and whiskey," Kate speaks five modern languages, including a "crude but fluent bordello English," and she can "quote the classics in Latin and Greek." If it's not quite a match made in heaven, hot-tempered, flamboyant Kate offers him both love and the consolation of sophisticated repartee.

In Dodge, Doc also gains the unlikely friendship of Wyatt Earp and his brothers. As intense and individual a character as Doc and Kate, Wyatt is a fanatically honest lawman who has both overcome and been shaped by an abusive childhood. He and Doc investigate the death of a bright young orphan, a boy generally well-liked but because of his mixed black and Seminole ancestry respected by few. This is more subplot than plot; Doc is not a murder mystery. Rather, it is the moving story of a man intent on enduring and giving his life meaning in a frontier society where the absence of grace and gentility is as painful to him as the violence. (2011; 416 pages, including an Author's Note discussing the research behind the story)

More about Doc at Powell's Books or

Other novels about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp:

Gunman's Rhapsody by Robert B. Parker (2001), about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the shootout at the OK Corral. More info

Territory by Emma Bull (2007), historical fantasy which imagines the shoot-out at the OK Corral as a battle between occult forces. More info

The Winter Wolf: Wyatt Earp in Alaska by Richard Parry (1996), about Wyatt Earp's quest to strike it rich in the Alaska Gold Rush. More info

Nonfiction about Doc Holliday and Dodge City, Kansas:

Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait by Karen Holliday Tanner (1998), a biography of Holliday that fleshes out his early life in Georgia. More info

Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend by Gary L. Roberts (2006), an attempt to sort out the facts from the legends about Doc Holliday. More info

Dodge City: The Early Years, 1872-1886 by William B. Shillingberg (2009). More info


Doc Holliday, an article by Ben Traywick from Wild West magazine

Big Nose Kate, a Wikipedia article about Doc Holliday's companion

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