Doc by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Mary Doria Russell's novel Doc takes its readers back to Dodge City, Kansas in the mid nineteenth century. It's a period I've heard about, of course, but mostly through poorly researched films and old television shows. This book has a hard feel to it that makes it different. It feels as if this is closer to the way life really was in that time and place.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday is the main character. He was raised in a wealthy Georgian family prior to the civil war (or antebellum as he likes to say.) His mother died from tuberculosis and he has the same disease. After he finishes his studies to become a dentist, Doc leaves Georgia for Texas where he's been told the climate will be easier on his lungs.
In Texas, Doc starts a long relationship with a prostitute named Mary Katherine. Kate, as she is most often called, has a similar background to Holliday's. When she was young she seemed destined to have an aristocratic life, but circumstances changed and now she takes pride in simply making her own way through life. Doc and Kate like to talk about music and poetry and especially love to speak to each other in Latin. It seems to remind them of their heritage.
The book also covers the lives of the Earp brothers, Morgan, James, Virgil, and Wyatt, with the most concentration on Wyatt. The brothers become close friends with Doc Holliday and consider him to be family.
A great deal of the story is about the prostitutes (generally referred to as whores) living in Dodge City. It seems that most of the women there were either working girls or former working girls. Dodge City was a place that cattle drovers came to for fun, so it was filled with brothels and saloons where the men could gamble away their earnings. In one section Wyatt, who is living with a former prostitute, contemplates Doc's defense of the women. (note: I transposed this selection from the audio version, so the punctuation may be wrong.)
Personally Wyatt didn't think it took all that much nerve to lie back and let a man do what he wanted for a minute or two. The whores at his brother's place seemed to him hard and mercenary. Or loose and indifferent. Or silly and stupid. But he had to admit he didn't know much about any of them.
Doc Holliday was an educated and thoughtful man, so Wyatt made an effort to match up what he'd seen with what Doc said.
There might be something to it, he guessed. Later on he asked Mattie Blaylock about her life before and what her story was. At first she just looked at him like she couldn't decide if he was dumb or trying to trick her. “Honest,” he said. “I wanna know.”
“Well – they was doing it to me anyway,” she told him, “might as well get paid.”
It wasn't much to go on, but he did his best to treat her like she was a lady. The way Doc treated Kate.
And another section describes the way Kate teases General Eli Grier, a man with whom Doc has a personal issue that dates back to his life in Georgia. Kate is setting Grier up. This is from Grier's point of view.
Maybe, so for she wasn't that pretty, and she sure as hell didn't flatter a man. Whatever the reason, Eli Grier wanted her, but the bitch just toyed with him. Once, back in July, when he thought the deal was made, she fixed him with that flat-eyed stare of hers. Breasts half-exposed by negligent lace, she leaned toward him with a feral grin, letting him breathe in her perfume and her musk, daring him to touch her. He reached out and his fingers grazed that creamy flesh, he felt the barrel of a derringer .36 press against the ribs above his heart.
Her voice was husky, foreign, amused. “Let's see your cash,” she whispered. “For you? I cost a grand.”
Then, laughing, she swirled away, silk rustling, making him watch, infuriated, as she picked another man. “For you?” she cried breezily. “Five bucks!” And off she went, not even glancing over her soft, white shoulder as she led the dazzled Texan up quiet, carpeted stairs.
Along with the prostitution, Russell's novel is filled with gambling, fighting (with both guns and fists), and dealing with a disease as serious as tuberculosis was at that time. But there is a sense of optimism throughout the book. This is the story of people who live hard lives, but who make the most of what they have and care about each other along the way.
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