How did John Henry Holliday, a genteel, well-bred, highly educated young dentist from a respectable Atlanta family, wind up in Tombstone, Arizona, as a major player in one of the most infamous gunfights in history? Mary Doria Russell refers to the infamous 1886 gunfight as a mere 30-second gun battle that occurs in the distant future near the end of Doc's life. She avers that his life prior to that historical but much overrated and romanticized event caused Doc Holliday's reputation as a gunfighter and brawler to be grossly exaggerated. Much of what people believed about him and his friends, the Earp brothers, is myth.
Doc contracted tuberculosis in his early 20s while still in Atlanta. His uncle, a doctor, suggested he would live longer if he located somewhere in the dryer climate of the west, so he moved to Texas to practice dentistry with his brother. A virtuoso pianist who could knock out the full score of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto just for relaxation, he could quote Plato in the Ancient Greek and conversed in Latin like a priest. He often switched to German to converse with his paramour, the infamous "Big Nose Kate" Horony. Kate was descended from a wealthy Hungarian family and had been tutored in five languages and classical literature.
After the family moved to Iowa in the mid-1800s, both of her parents died, and as a young teenager, Kate was placed in foster care. She ran away on a Mississippi riverboat to St. Louis, then found her way to a Texas Army fort where she met the Earp brothers. Doc Holliday had also moved to the fort to practice dentistry, and they all became friends. It was Doc and Kate's intellect and affinity for literature that drew them together, but it was their love of gambling and the sporting life that kept their stormy relationship afloat for nearly 20 years. Two less likely people to go down in history as infamous renegades could seldom be found.
During quiet times in the small Texas town, Doc discovered that dealing Faro could net him more money in one night than a month of staring at bad teeth in foul-smelling mouths. It was the 1870s, and the huge cattle drives of the era had made Dodge City, Kansas, the money center of the west. Kate convinced him that saloons, casinos and cowboys with big end-of-the-trail pay and bad teeth were a natural combination for riches, so they, along with Wyatt Earp and his brothers, moved to lawless Dodge. It is there that much of the story takes place. Some western writings describe Kate as a "sporting woman" or prostitute. The author doesn't gloss over her lifestyle, in fact emphasizing that Kate and Doc led a tempestuous love life, and that fidelity was not something that either of them held sacred.
The notches on Doc's belt, if any, were due more to his shriveling skeletal frame caused by his steadily advancing TB than picking off the bad guys in gun battles. He is known to have shot a man who later died of his wounds who was attempting to assassinate Wyatt Earp, and may have been involved in a shooting that took another life, but the violent, drunken, brawling gunfighter image cannot be verified when examined. Such is the stuff westerns and heroic myths are made of, and Russell attempts to set the record straight.
DOC is not a biography in the strictest sense of the word, because Russell has created two sympathetic fictitious characters to enrich the story, which is written in historical novel style. However, her massive research on Doc Holliday, the Earps, Bat Masterson, Kate Horony and other famous figures of the times is evident and provides a gripping portrait of a man still familiar to most readers 130 years after the event that made his name a household word. It turns out that Doc Holliday is even more fascinating in real life than the man Hollywood and dime novelists have created.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on February 28, 2012