A Horse Opera

19 May

Despite being an essential part of the history of the USA and unmistakably shaping the culture of ,more than few locales in that country, that story has not been particularly well-served by movie makers and novelists.By my reckoning there are not much more than a handful worthy “horse operas” (don’t you love that rubric?)

Now, having made that claim, I suppose I am obliged to list them. In no particular order, Geronimo, The Searchers, True Grit, Wyatt Earp, McCabe & Mrs Miller, and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

As for novels— ,James Carlos Blake’s In the Rogue Blood, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Percival Everett’s God’s Country, Cormac MCCarthy’s Blood Meridien, Pete Dexter’s Deadwood ( read it see if you believe David Milch’s claim that he was unaware of Dexter’s fine opus), Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Scott Phillips’s Cottonwood and Joseph O Connor’s Redemption Falls.

So I am very pleased to have come across Mary Doria Russell’s Doc (Random House) which is novel based on the life of one of the more
interesting characters arising out of cowboy mythology, Doc Holiday. He, was of course, a crony of the Earp brothers in the rough and tumble days of Dodge City Kansas as it went from wild cowtown to a semi-civilzed metropolis in the last quarter of the 19th century and was a participant in the iconic shoot em up in Tombstone, known as the gunfight at OK Corral.

Holliday, a well born Georgia -born dentist, well acculturated and schooled was, as was his mother, afflicted with tuberculosis and according to this story made his way to Texas for his health and to set up a dental practice. Hampered by his affliction Holiday picks up other skills —faro dealer and poker player and in the company of Hungarian prostitute Mária Katarina Harony (Kate) they head for Dodge City in 1878 because “that’s where the money is.”

Russell writes of her novel’s protagonist

The Doc Holliday of legend is a gambler and gunman who appears out of nowhere in 1881, arriving in Tombstone with a bad reputation and a hooker named Big Nose Kate. But I have written the story of Alice Holliday’s son: a scared, sick, lonely boy, born for the life of a minor aristocrat in a world that ceased to exist at the end of the Civil War, trying to stay alive on the rawest edge of the American frontier.

John Henry Holliday didn’t have a mother to love him when he was grown, so I have taken him for my own. My fondest hope for Doc is that it will win for him the compassion and respect I think he deserves. Read it, and weep.

It is, of course, the legendary joust in Tombstone that firmly affixes Doc Holiday’s legend in the lore of the Wild West. Russell givers it little attention but a new tome by Jeff Gunn,The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West (Simon & Schuster). Starting with clarifying that the gunfight did not actually occur in the O.K. Corral, Gunn draws from his prodigious research (which includes Wyatt Earp’s own hand-drawn sketch of the shootout’s conclusion ) and frames a more accurate account albeit in the context of how legends effected the shapping of the American Western narrative.

There is a ridiculously contra factual film with Stacey Keach made in 1971 (with a screenplay by Pete Hamill)

Watch it and laugh.

3 Responses to “A Horse Opera”

  1. Brandy L May 21, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    I am thrilled to let all Mrs. Russells fans know … that in celebration of her new book she is working with Smile Train to raise awareness! Doc Holliday was born with a cleft palate and was able to get surgery very youngs, so Mrs.Russell has agreed to match the donations her fans make to Smile Train, up to $15,000. That’s amazing and will help so many!


  1. Who are THE SISTERS BROTHERS? « ourmaninboston - June 10, 2011

    […] I found myself bemoaning the dearth of enticingly written novels set in the 19th century American West. So it is especially pleasing to […]

  2. Pete Hamill | Identity Theory - March 6, 2012

    […] RB: I just read a newly published novel called Doc by Mary Doria Russell. […]

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