Mary Doria Russell: From Sparrow to Doc

While my reading taste is pretty eclectic, until recently I hadn't read very much historical fiction.  Perhaps it is thanks to those engaging YA historical novels I've listened to in the past few years that I'm dipping into this genre a little more.

It also helps if I find an author I like who bounces around genres.  A couple of years ago my book group read The Sparrow.  At the time, I said it was hard to believe this was Mary Doria Russell's first novel, and that the book was like Ursula LeGuin, only deeper.  I know, hard to believe, deeper than Ursula?  In this SF masterpiece, Jesuits make First Contact, because, well, Catholics go on missions.  And you know how missionaries can get into trouble due to deep cultural misunderstandings?  The sole survivor who returns to Earth must reveal his story that includes a brothel and a dead child, as well as recover from unimaginable trauma.

Since I loved this author's style, I'll happily read her other books. In Doc, Russell daringly covers a subject that has entered our cultural consciousness through many movies: Dr. John Henry Holliday, dentist.  IMDB tells me there are 43 instances of the character Doc Holliday in movies and television since 1937. Along with Doc Holliday, in this book we get close to the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan, and James, during their short time in Dodge City, before the famous OK Corral incident.

Despite all those occasions to encounter Doc as a character, I was surprised to learn there was a lot I did not know. John Holliday was born with a cleft palate, treated with surgery. He was a southern gentleman, and a search for relief from consumption drove him west. The tale is told as if from the view of a compassionate historian. The man was an alcoholic, but it was alcohol rather than laudanum that helped him relieve his consumptive cough without losing his sharp mental faculties he needed as a gambler. Faro was his game, not poker, usually.  We're given the myth that was spread in the papers, like say how Doc shot and killed a man, and the often innocuous story (in which no one was shot) that spawned the myth. The author clearly is fond of Doc, and now I too have a soft spot for the man.