Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Review: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

So first, I have to say that this book is not really appropriate for most middle schoolers.  Not only is it more philosophical than action oriented, with the book's iconic heroes spending more times in bars and brothels then...well, pretty much anything else..., there is hardly a single adult female character in the bulk of the book who isn't either a practicing or retired prostitute.  So, like I say, maybe not so good for early adolescents.

But for adults?  I loved this book.

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell, tells the story of Doc Holliday, who has always been the member of the whole "Shootout at the OK Chorale" crew that I found most intriguing.  (Although I love Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot, and Bill Pullman, I've always thought that Val Kilmer's portrayal of Doc Holliday stole the movie Tombstone).  It may seem like there is nothing new to discover in this oft-told tale; apparently there are been close to 50 movies made about the Earps, and Harrison Ford is said to be following up his role in the highly anticipated (at least by my husband) "Cowboys and Aliens" with a movie where he plays an aging Wyatt Earp battling gangsters in Chicago (or something like that).  But Russell has done an excellent job of portraying life in those wild western towns, like Dodge City, while digging into the morals and motivations of the characters who have so often been reduced to cardboard hero figures.

Doc traces Holliday's life from an infant, supposedly born with a cleft palate, through his raising as a fine Southern gentleman by his refined mother, who also died of tuberculosis at a tender age, and his travels west to escape the unhappy fate of his own diagnosis of consumption when he was 22.  Russell, who has done excellent research in the times and grounds as much of her story as possible in historical fact, also develops Holliday's confounding character is a believable and enthralling way--an educated man with champagne tastes living a life of frequent poverty in a frontier town with few refinements, a methodical and hardworking professional who would act impulsively and in ways that risked his own life.  She also fleshes out the interior lives of the other iconic figures--the Earp family, Bat Masterson, and the like--that shows the humanity behind historical figures known mainly for their violence (both on behalf of and against the law).   She also escapes the hackneyed portrayals of these well-known people by basically skipping the sequences for which they are most famous, such as the OK Chorale and Earp and Holliday's revenge on Morgan's killers.

I also really liked Russell's writing style.  She describes well the rough life of the wild west, but other times her prose is quite lyrical, almost poetic.  But mostly, I could just imagine every word of dialogue she wrote from Doc coming naturally from the character she created.  Actually, I could envision a certain movie actor (not any that had portrayed Doc before) uttering every line, and they all sounded divine.  Any guesses what actor came to my mind to bring this character on screen?  If so, post them in the comments below.

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