The only reason I picked up Doc (2011) was that it looked new and it was by Mary Doria Russell. I became a fan of hers after I read, and was completely engrossed by, The Sparrow (1996). Although I'm interested in any kind of history if it's well written, I don't have a particular fascination with the Wild West and its violence, shootouts, and gambling. My previous knowledge of the life of Doc Holliday came entirely from Val Kilmer's depiction of the character in Tombstone. However, just as Russell surprised me with her captivating science-fiction tale, I was surprised again once I started reading Doc.
Doc is a fictional story of John Henry Holliday. Russell begins the story with his birth and childhood. She follows him out of his native Georgia to Texas and eventually to Dodge, Kansas, where Doc meets up with the Earp boys and where most of the story takes place. I was concerned that a fictional account of such a well-known story might be distracting, that I would spend the entire novel wondering which parts were factual and which parts Russell had made up. However, Russell focuses on the more unknown parts of Holliday's life (at least unknown to me), the things that forged him as a person and inevitably led to "the stand-off at the O.K. corral." By the time Russell got to parts of Holliday's life that were even vaguely familiar, I was so invested in her telling that I didn't care how much liberty she was taking with the story.
Russell has a way of giving just enough background on all of her characters that I really felt like I understood where they were coming from and why they were acting in a certain way. And knowing and really understanding so many of the different characters that made up the city of Dodge made for a very realistic and rich backdrop as the setting for the novel. The lonely, the fortune seekers, the power hungry, and the dispossessed all came together to build a city from the ground up at the edge of civilization. And, my god, the women did not have an easy time of it out there.
When I saw Doc on bookshelves I was initially surprised that Russell would follow a science-fiction novel with a historical western, but the two books had some remarkable similarities. The sense of community and family that Doc was able to build with the Earp brothers reminded me of the sense of community among the small group heading to a far off planet in The Sparrow. Both groups were pioneers and both groups depended on each other for friendship, love, safety, and survival.
SPOILER??? - When I picked up the book I had assumed that the focus would be on the famous showdown at the O.K. corral in Tombstone, Arizona. So, I was a little confused when I was 4/5 of the way done with the book and everyone was still in Dodge. I think it made the ending feel a little unfocused because I couldn't tell where it was going. Now that I'm done, I think it's admirable that Russell thoroughly explained the humor and dark tragedy of Doc Holliday's life without even getting to the most famous part. I knew the characters so well by that point, I didn't even need Russell to describe what occurred that day.