The story of Doc Holliday is as compelling as any Western legend can be.
Not only did he die downvalley in Glenwood Springs, but his colorful personality makes him a favorite character in books and movies. Probably the most striking role was played by Val Kilmer in the 1993 movie “Tombstone.” While being portrayed by iconic young movie stars can certainly add to your legend, it takes a masterful writer to fit you in a time and place. Mary Doria Russell is just that writer, and I can’t recommend this book more highly.
Doc Holliday was born near Atlanta in 1851. He was born with a cleft palate and a cleft lip, but as a small infant had corrective surgery. Great praise is given to young Alice Holliday, who at 22 years of age would nurse her newborn with an eye dropper, and then later coach him after his surgery with speech therapy, all the while keeping his deformity secret from the Southern society of which she was a part. The Hollidays were a member of a large, extended Southern family, which included the author Margaret Mitchell. (When she wrote “ Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell was writing about the life styles of her relatives, the Hollidays.)
Rather than explode onto the Western scene in a blaze of gunfire, Doc Holliday slowly moved West in an effort to find relief from the symptoms of tuberculosis, which of course would eventually kill him. His own mother’s death of TB when he was 15 gave him a pretty clear picture of what was to be his own lingering end.
This is a book about Doc Holliday’s life before the gunfight in Tombstone.” “Doc” is the story of a friendship between the already dying young dentist from Atlanta, and the rookie lawman named Wyatt Earp. It’s the story of an unlikely bond, maybe forged by dental work, of all things, that leads unlikely friends to the eventual shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. This is the sometimes brutal story of Dodge City, Kan., and the gamblers and whores and murderers and cowboys who lived in the West after the Civil War.
Dodge City was a caldron of racial tensions, lingering resentments about the outcome of the war, big losses at the poker table, and sporadic visits by out-of-control cattle bosses and their drunken cowboy employees. Into this setting steps the refined, educated Doc Holliday and his mistress, the prostitute named “ Big Nose Kate.” The soft spoken dentist won constantly at big poker games set up by Kate. She spent his winnings and often left the saloon in the company of other men (“Little House on the Prairie” this isn’t).
Yet, the compelling character called Doc makes this book a treat. His friendship with the dysfunctional Earp family and his loyalty to Kate are quite believable when addressed by the excellent research and writing skills of Russell. Added to the plot is the mysterious death of a black boy befriended by Doc and the Earps. The decision to leave Dodge City ends the book, but what awaits this group of people in Tombstone is so well known to every fan of Westerns that it doesn’t even have to be added.
His life clearly ending, the description of the fatally ill dandy makes it quite easy to remember the Val Kilmer portrayal of one of our most colorful Western characters. Read and enjoy!