Historical fiction author Mary Doria Russell visits Edwards Thursday
Ryan Summerlin April 18, 2012
It’s 1878 in Dodge City, Kansas, a prosperous cow town filled with rowdy young cowboys who like to get liquored up at the many saloons and cause trouble. It’s also the new home of Dr. John Henry Holliday, better known as Doc Holliday. In 1878 Holliday was a skinny, sickly 26-year-old dentist who wanted nothing more than the chance to practice his profession. The infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. was still four years out, and his early death in Glenwood Springs lay a decade in front of him. Author Mary Doria Russell’s historical novel “Doc” focuses on Old West hero Doc Holliday, a tragic myth of a man who died at just 36 years old from tuberculosis. Using well-researched details and facts, Russell weaves together a tale that’s hard to put down. Just ask Cortni O’Brien, the public relations librarian at the Eagle Valley Library District. “As a new mom, I got wrapped up in Doc Holliday’s compelling story from the beginning pageswith Mary Doria Russell’s depiction of how Doc’s mother Alice had to use use a spoon and aneye-dropper around the clock to feed her son for the firsteight weeks of his life due to his cleft palate,” O’Brien said. “That early devotion would shape his character, for sure.”Russell’s book “Doc,” was chosen in February as the community read for One Book, One Valley, a collaboration between several local organizations to create a community book club. The final event is set for Thursday night at the Colorado Mountain College in Edwards where Russell will discuss her novel and sign books. Local thespians from the Porchlight Players group will give a short performance reading as well.
The historical fiction book was selected for its appeal across age and gender lines as well as Doc Holliday’s regional ties, according to organizers. “The Leadville courthouse still shows the arrests of the infamous gunfighter and gambler in its jail records,” according to a press release from event organizers. “Holliday spent his final days in the Colorado Hotel in Glenwood Springs, hoping the Yampah hot springs would stave off his tuberculosis. A marker in the Linwood Cemetery still memorializes him and his involvement with Wyatt Earp at the legendary shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.”The Bookworm of Edwards has sold around 150 copies of the book, which was released in May 2011. So far the feedback has been very good, O’Brien said. “Many readers who have attended the book discussion groups throughout the community read have said that they might not have read ‘Doc’ prior to the event, but they are so glad that they did. Russell’s writing style brings the Old West to life as only great historical fiction can.”
Russell spent three years writing the book, she said, and did meticulous research that painted an enlightening picture of a the gambling, gun slinging man most people have heard about, including his early life. John Henry Holliday was born in 1851 to parents who had just buried their first child, “a sweet little girl who lived just long enough to gaze and smile and laugh, and break her parents’ hearts,” Russell writes in the book. Holliday was born with a cleft palate, a disfigurment the young child’s uncle would correct surgically a few months later. Holliday’s mother, who died from tuberculosis when Holliday was 15 years old, was determined her son would speak clearly.While some people thought of the boy as a half-wit, he was actually very intelligent, and would go on to play the piano, speak a handful of languages and graduate as a doctor of dental surgery at only 21 years old. “Within a year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis,” Russell said during an interview with Northeast Public Radio. “So in 1872, at 22 years old, a year out of dental school, he faced a choice. You can die in 6 to 18 months, or you can go west, where there was andectdotal evidence that dry air and sunshine could put the disease into remission. That’s why he went west – out of desperation. He wanted to live.”The book “Doc” focuses on one year in Holliday’s life, five years later, when “he had recovered well enough … to be able to hang a shingle, and he became a dentist again,” Russell said. “He made a place for himself in Dodge City, made friends with the Earps; it was the year he met Kate (Harony, who considered herself Holliday’s common law wife), and for awhile, it looked like he could bring his life back to what he wanted, and relieve the suffering of people who didn’t even know what a dentist was most often.”One of Russell’s previous books, “The Sparrow,” has been described as science fiction for people who don’t generally like science fiction books. Likewise, “Doc” has been referred to as a western for people who don’t typically enjoy that style of writing. So the question remains, did Russell set out to break down genre barriers? Regardless, that’s what she seems to have done. High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-748-2984.