Re-examining the Wild West with Doc

When I think of the Wild, Wild West I imagine bar fights, prostitution, gambling, and dust.  A lot of dust.  The women are pretty, the men are ornery, and the dangers are plentiful.  And there’s definitely all that in Mary Doria Russell’s book “Doc” but it’s so much more than that. In fact, all those things you think about when you think about the Wild, Wild West? All those things are drastically downplayed.  What you do get, is a brilliant character portrayal of some of the notorious characters of that time period  – Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  You get to see them as real people – not as the notorious gunslingers forever remembered for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (which, by the way, barely gets mentioned at all).

I didn’t know what to expect when I first picked up this book.  In fact, I didn’t even really know what the book was about.  Mary Doria Russell wrote “The Sparrow” and “The Children of God” – two incredibly well written and incredibly moving books.  So of course, when I found out that she had written a new book I immediately put myself on the waiting list for it.

So I guess what I was expecting was far off lands and new alien cultures and perhaps a priest.  Well, I guess I got one of the three.  Really, though, I should have expected a Wild West story given the cover features an upright piano and a cowboy hat.

What I love is that she paints all the characters incredibly sympathetically.  You see Doc Holliday as a sickly man, playing up a rough guy image to survive in the Wild West.  You see Wyatt Earp as a man deeply driven by moral right and wrong.   You feel like you really understand the characters and why they behave the way they do.   She also introduces Kate, a prostitute who is Doc’s constant companion (well, as constant as she can be, given her flighty personality). But once again, you don’t see her as merely a whore – you see her as a woman, trying to protect herself and survive.

Would I recommend the book? I’m not sure.  If you’re interested in really getting to know people, then yes, I think it’s great.  If you’re interested in a typical Wild West story? I’m not so sure.  What I wholeheartedly recommend, however, is “The Sparrow” and “Children of God”.

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