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Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral


Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

"This is the West, sir," observes the newspaper editor at the conclusion of the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Perhaps no other legend of the West has been as manipulated and misunderstood as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881. It conjures a torrent of gunfire as marshals and marauders duel in the frontier town with guns blazing. 

The reality is far different. This was not a gunfight in the true meaning of that term, and it did not take place at the O.K. Corral. It actually occurred six doors west of the Corral and was a 30-second confrontation between feuding groups in the Tombstone community. When the shooting began, the two groups were six feet apart. Some of the combatants ran from the fight, and when the shooting ended, three were dead and three were wounded.

"Russell has done extensive research into the events at Tombstone, and even though she is writing a novel, she makes the effort to be true to the facts."

The shooting at the O.K. Corral has spawned legends, movies, and an entire town of re-enactors and museums in Tombstone, Arizona. Countless books have delved into the actual history of the event. Ironically, Mary Doria Russell’s EPITAPH is perhaps the best compilation of the personalities and events surrounding the incident at Tombstone. Yet even her novel devotes a scant four or five pages to the actual gun battle. The shooting did not end the conflict between the Earps and Clantons. As a good historian would, Russell completes the saga by providing drama and detail to the post-shooting events. Great nonfiction can often cause readers to think they are reading a fictional account. In many ways, EPITAPH does the opposite. Readers may well feel as though they are reading a thoroughly researched and well-written actual history. 

Two characters are the linchpins of EPITAPH. Wyatt Earp is the law enforcement legend of the West. His life history is two parts myth to one part fact. His name evokes the epitome of American sheriffs of the Old West. But some of his most strident admirers may be shocked to learn that he was a proponent of many anti-gun measures in the communities where he worked. In Earp’s time, Tombstone had very strict gun laws, much stricter than today. The Tombstone shooting was in part caused by Earp’s enforcement of a local law that prohibited carrying firearms in public. The second important character in the novel is one who in later years would help create the legend of Wyatt Earp: his eventual wife, Josephine Marcus. She met Earp in Tombstone and eventually lived with him in San Francisco. As Earp’s common-law wife and widow, she published I MARRIED WYATT EARP in 1931, two years after Earp’s death. It helped create the legend of Earp that many now accept as fact.

The extensive cast of characters critical to understanding the Tombstone events are also present in EPITAPH. Doc Holliday was the subject of a previous novel by Russell, DOC. Johnny Behan, the sheriff of Cochise County and Josephine’s erstwhile lover, plays an important role in the saga, as do the McLaurys and Clantons. Russell has done extensive research into the events at Tombstone, and even though she is writing a novel, she makes the effort to be true to the facts. The characters and plot are not perfect, but EPITAPH tells the story with a precision that will entertain readers who love both the legend and the true account of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on March 13, 2015

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral
by Mary Doria Russell

  • Publication Date: February 16, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Ecco
  • ISBN-10: 0062198777
  • ISBN-13: 9780062198778