Playing for Time
He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle. The disease took fifteen years to hollow out his lungs so completely they could no longer keep him alive. In all that time, he was allowed a single season of something like happiness.
When he arrived in Dodge City in 1878, Dr. John Henry Holliday was a frail twenty-six-year-old dentist who wanted nothing grander than to practice his profession in a prosperous Kansas cow town. Hope – cruelest of the evils that escaped Pandora’s box – smiled on him gently all that summer. While he lived in Dodge, the quiet life he yearned for seemed to lie within his grasp.
At thirty, he would be famous for his part in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. A year later, he would become infamous when he rode at Wyatt Earp’s side to avenge the murder of Wyatt’s brother Morgan. The journalists of his day embellished slim fact with fat rumor and rank fiction; it was they who invented the iconic frontier gambler and gunman Doc Holliday. (Thin. Mustachioed. A cold and casual killer. Doomed, and always dressed in black, as though for his own funeral.) That unwanted notoriety added misery to John Henry’s final months, when illness and exile had made him a lonely and destitute alcoholic, dying by awful inches and living off charity in a Colorado hotel.
The wonder is how long and how well he fought that destiny. He was meant to die at birth. The Fates pursued him from the day he first drew breath, howling for his delayed demise.
His mother’s name was Alice Jane. She was one of the South Carolina McKeys, third of eleven children. Fair-haired, gray-eyed, with a gentle manner, she came late to marriage, almost twenty at her wedding. Alice was pretty enough and played piano well, but she was educated in excess of a lady’s requirements. She was also possessed of a quiet, stubborn strength of character that had discouraged beaux less determined than Henry Holliday, a Georgia planter ten years her senior.
Alice and Henry buried their firstborn, a sweet little girl who lived just long enough to gaze and smile and laugh, and break her parents’ hearts. Still in mourning for her daughter, Alice took no chances when she was brought to bed with her second child. This time, she insisted, she would be attended by Henry’s brother, a respected physician with modern ideas, who rode to Griffin from nearby Fayetteville as soon as he received her summons.
Labor in Georgia’s wet mid-August heat was grueling. When at last Alice was delivered of a son, the entire household fell quiet with relief. Just moments later, a dreadful cry went up once more, for cleft palates and cleft lips are shocking malformations.
The newborn’s parents were in despair. Another small grave in the red Georgia clay. But Dr. John Stiles Holliday was strangely calm. “This need not be fatal,” the physician mused aloud, examining his tiny nephew. “If you can keep him alive for a month or two, Alice, I believe the defects can be repaired.”
Later that day, he taught his sister-in-law how to feed her son: with an eyedropper and with great care, so that the baby would not choke. It was a slow process, exhausting for the mother and the son. John Henry would fall asleep before Alice could feed him so much as a shot glass of milk; soon hunger would reawaken him, and since his mother trusted no one else with her fragile child’s life, neither slept more than an hour or two between feedings, for eight long weeks.
By October, the infant had gained enough weight and strength for his uncle to attempt the surgery. In this, John Stiles Holliday was joined by Dr. Crawford Long, who had begun developing the use of ether as an anesthetic just a few years earlier. After much study and planning, the two physicians performed the first surgical repair of a cleft palate on the North American continent, though their achievement was kept quiet to protect the family’s good name.
With his mother’s devoted care, the two-month-old came through his operation well. The scar in his upper lip would give his smile a crooked charm all his life, but his palate remained unavoidably misshapen and when the toddler began to talk, Alice was the only one who understood a thing he said. Truth be told, everybody else suspected the boy was a half-wit, but Alice was certain her son was as bright as a new penny, and mothers always know.
So she shielded John Henry from his father’s embarrassment and shame. She forbade the house slaves and John Henry’s many young cousins to poke fun at his honking attempts at speech. She studied Plutarch on the education of children, and with Demosthenes as her guide, Alice Jane set out to improve her child’s diction. All on her own, she analyzed how the tongue and lips should be placed to produce the sounds her little boy found impossible. She filled scrapbooks with pictures and drawings, and every afternoon she and John Henry paged through those albums, naming each neatly labeled object, practicing the difficult words. In that way, Alice taught her son to read by the age of four and though correction of his speech required years more, their diligence was rewarded. In adulthood, if his difficulty with certain consonants was noticed at all, acquaintances were apt to ascribe it to his lazy Georgia drawl. Or, later on, to drink.
He was quiet and rather shy as a child. Hoping to counter his natural reserve, Alice started John Henry’s piano lessons as soon as he could reach the keyboard, and she was delighted to discover that he had inherited from her an accurate musical ear and a drive to master any skill to which he set his hand. Left to himself, the boy would have whiled away his hours reading, or practicing piano, or daydreaming. Alice knew that was no way for a Southern gentleman to behave so when John Henry turned seven, she began to encourage the other Holliday boys to spend more time with him. It wasn’t long before he held his own in their rowdy, noisy games, riding as recklessly and shooting as well as any of them.
“He ain’t big and he ain’t strong,” nine-year-old Robert Holliday told his Aunt Alice, “but that boy’s got a by-God streak of fight in him.”
And he was going to need it.
When she was confident at last that John Henry would not be ridiculed for his speech, Alice enrolled him in a nearby boys’ academy. She had taught him well at home; from the start, he excelled in mathematics, grammar, rhetoric, and history. Latin and French came easily. Greek was a struggle but with characteristic determination, he kept at it, year after year, until he could read Homer in the original.
Like all Southern girls, Alice Jane had made a thorough study of the male of the species. She knew the rules by which boys played and wasn’t much surprised when her son’s diffident aloofness and scholastic success combined to provoke his classmates beyond toleration. The first time John Henry came home bloody, all Alice asked was “Did you win?” Later that evening, she told the story of the Spartan mother seeing her son off to war. “Come home with your shield or on it,” Alice reminded him the next morning when he left for school.
His cousin Robert followed that moral lecture with another involving applied physics. “Don’t start nothin’,” young Robert advised, “but if some ignorant goddam cracker sonofabitch takes a swing at you? Drop him, son. Use a rock if you have to.”
John Henry never did make many friends at school, but the other boys learned to leave him alone – and to copy his answers on exams.
Doc Holliday is the tragic hero in this terrific bio-epic set in a revisionist version of the Old West—more realistic yet more riveting than any movie or TV western… Fact and mythmaking converge as Russell creates a Dodge City filled with nuggets of surprising history, a city so alive readers can smell the sawdust and hear the tinkling of saloon pianos. Losing their mythic, heroic sheen, figures like Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson become more captivating for their complexity… Filled with action and humor yet philosophically rich and deeply moving—a magnificent read. –Kirkus (starred review)
Mary Doria Russell brings lethal Dodge City to life in a colorful group-portrait of famous frontiersmen years before many of them would pass into legend at the O.K. Corral… [T]he rising tension between the corrupt, carousing, and well-armed inhabitants of Dodge and the forces of law represented by the moralistic Wyatt Earp and his brother, Morgan, makes a spectacular background to a memorable year-in-the-life tale of a fiery young Southern gentleman whose loyalty to his friends and love of music outshine even his fragile health and the whiskey-soaked violence of the western frontier. – Publishers Weekly
A bold act of historical reclamation that scrapes off the bull and allows [Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday] to walk and talk and love and grieve in the dynamic 19th-century world that existed before Hollywood shellacked it into cliches… What’s so beautiful about this novel is the way Russell dismantles rickety legends while reconstructing her own larger-than-life characters on a firmer foundation of historical fact and psychological insight…plumbing the real heroism of these men and enjoying their capacity for tenderness... I am in awe of how confidently Russell rides through this familiar territory and remakes all its rich heroism and tragedy. –Washington Post
Russell creatively reimagines Doc Holliday’s early years in this authentically detailed, evocatively rendered fictional biography. What elevates the novel above standard western mythologies lies in its crystalline characterizations, crackling dialogue, and vivid, less than idyllic descriptions of the time and the place. This robust realization of the man before he was replaced by the legend is not for genre fans only. — Booklist
Intense, individual characters, so fully realized that readers can almost physically touch them, fill the novel’s pages… Doc’s restrained but magnificent struggle to rise above the indignities of his disease and of life in Dodge … is one of the delights of this surprisingly luminous and elegant novel. –The Oregonian
Fascinating… A fine murder mystery… Russell’s women are a match for any of the men in Dodge, and their presence in the center of Doc gives the novel an unforced verissimilitude. –The Cleveland Plain Dealer
There’s plenty of grit and gunfighting in “Doc,” but also beauty and soul — the truer side of a man who went down in history for one moment of violence.–The Wichita Eagle
Full of well-developed characters and rich historical detail, Russell’s excellent novel will appeal to readers who enjoy a lively and vivid work of historical fiction. – The Library Journal
Russell draws a bead on Doc Holliday and nails him — his southern drawl, his innate kindness and the hard steel that lies beneath it — as she reimagines his story. Well-written and provocative, Doc is a book that will haunt you as you imagine this refined, educated man dwindling to nothing more than a hollow cough and a bloodied handkerchief. – Historical Novels Review
A very sick man when he came to Dodge City in 1878, John Henry Holliday battled tuberculosis, the greatest killer of the 19th century. All the while, he tried to live life to its fullest. That may not be the stuff of legend or the script of a 1950’s horse opera, but in the thoughtful prose of Mary Doria Russell it makes for a moving and memorable portrait of the American West and one of its most enigmatic heroes. – California Literary Review
In an “author’s note,” Russell says readers will wonder “How much of that was real?” Her answer is “not all of it but a lot more than you might think.” To which I will add that what is “real” includes, paradoxically, what she so deftly transmits: the luminescent aura of a tragic myth. – Katherine A. Powers, BN Review
Here, in very realistic fiction, is a true understanding of a complex person who stumbled onto the world’s stage for a brief starring role that still captivates fans across the earth… This book is an adventure to read and impossible to put down. – Lincoln NE Journal Star