by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2011
You probably recognize their names. Doc Holliday. Wyatt Earp. Big Nose Kate. The O.K. Corral. Well, set aside what you remember of their legends and open up Doc by Mary Doria Russell. Russell digs down into the historical roots of the myths of Doc Holliday’s story to reveal the hearts of this motley cast of characters.
Doc is a well-crafted mix of western and historical fiction. It is also a character study. Through Russell’s eyes, we really get to know John Henry Holliday, especially, but also his long-time lover Kate Harony, Morgan Earp, and Wyatt Earp. Instead of a cold-blooded killer, Russell’s John Henry is a bit more sensitive. Doc was born in Georgia with a cleft palate and speech impediment, groomed as a gentleman, and given a strong classical education and piano training by his mother. As an adult, John Henry is trained as a dentist. But when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 21 (a fatal diagnosis), he moves West to try to prolong his life and improve his health.
Out of Georgia, he becomes a professional gambler when he fails to make a living as a dentist. And he meets the people that will define his life: Kate and the Earp brothers. All the characters receive similar treatment from Russell; we see all their strengths and their flaws and continue to like them.
Doc moves more slowly than a traditional western, and we never actually get to the infamous gunfight. Instead, Doc provides the backstory. How did these people meet? How did they become friends?
Doc is a good western for those who don’t usually enjoy westerns. Historical fiction fans will appreciate Russell’s attention to historical accuracy, sense of place, and well-developed characters. And, western fans will enjoy a fresh look at some of the genre’s most beloved characters.
Questions for Book Club Discussions
“The Doc Holliday of legend is a gambler and gunman who appears out of nowhere in 1881, arriving in Tombstone with a bad reputation and a hooker named Big Nose Kate. But I have written the story of Alice Holliday’s son: a scared, sick, lonely boy, born for the life of a minor aristocrat in a world that ceased to exist at the end of the Civil War, trying to stay alive on the rawest edge of the American frontier.
John Henry Holliday didn’t have a mother to love him when he was grown, so I have taken him for my own. My fondest hope for Doc is that it will win for him the compassion and respect I think he deserves.”
-Mary Doria Russell, “A Letter to Book Clubs“
- In the quote above, the author of Doc, Mary Doria Russell, explains that she wanted to provide a more compassionate view of the man. Did she succeed? If you had to describe John Henry/Doc in one sentence based on how he’s written in this book, what would you say about him?
- Kate Harony and John Henry Holliday have a complex relationship. What did you think about Kate and Doc? Was their relationship healthy or toxic? Were they better together, or would they have been better on their own?
- Doc throws an elaborate wake for Johnnie Sanders, despite the fact that he only knew him for a brief amount of time. Why did Doc spend so much money on Johnnie’s wake? What does this tell us about his character?
- What role did race and sex play in the Dodge City, Kansas, and how did it effect the characters? Some characters to think about include Kate, Mattie, Bessie, Isabelle, Johnnie Sanders, and Jau Dong-Sing along with Father Alexander von Angensperg’s school.
- Doc is initially closer to Morgan Earp instead of Wyatt Earp. What is it that eventually draws John Henry and Wyatt Earp together into a friendship that will become well-known?
- Do you see any parallel’s between issues in the Old West and today’s society? What sorts of problems and issues do we still face?