Friday, January 06, 2012

‘Doc’ by Mary Doria Russell - Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith

   ‘Doc’ by Mary Doria Russell – my copy is a beautiful hardback with uncut pages and a glossy saloon scene front cover (think cowboy hat on a stool beside a piano).  The novel is set in Janson type, evidently ‘an old-style book face of excellent clarity and sharpness’.   But no matter the cover or the typeface, this book is outstanding for its content.   I’m not sure if Mary Doria Russell is well known in New Zealand, but she ought to be.   I think she might become one of my  favourite authors, although so far, I’ve only read two of her books, the first one being ‘Dreamers of the Day’.   
               I discovered Doria Russell while working in a bookshop. ‘Dreamers of the Day’ was one of those books you could sell to a stranger. It was my fall-back when someone wanted a gift for a friend, or a book to take on holiday, but they didn’t quite know which book.   It’s about a spinster from Cleveland Ohio, who loses her family in the great flu pandemic of 1918 and decides to travel to Egypt.  She meets up with Lawrence of Arabia, Gertrude Bell and Winston Churchill, as they discuss the creation of Mesopotamia, rewriting the borders of Iraq (and along the way, she sort of falls in love with a German spy.)  A delightful and insightful mix of serious history and light-hearted romance.
               And so I became a fan of the author and began to follow her blog and watched with interest as news of this new book ‘Doc’ began to filter through.    ‘Doc’, is the story of John Henry Holliday more famously remembered as Doc Holliday at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona, alongside Wyatt Earp. 
               Doria Russell re-imagines a life for Doc Holliday before Tombstone in the late 1800’s in Dodge City.  The author has two great gifts – number one she is an outstanding story-teller, and number two, she is a meticulous researcher.   Add to the mix her ‘fine prose and compelling narrative drive’ and you have a book to remember.   Even if you haven’t a clue who Doc Holliday was, you could very soon become intrigued and enjoy this book.  It’s a Western; it’s about Dodge City; it’s about pioneers, prostitutes, cowboys, and one young, tubercular dentist born with a cleft palate (although some dispute this) who builds orthodontic bridges by day and deals faro by night with Mary Katharine “Kate” Harony by his side.  Kate... “the baby who began life in Hungary as Maria Katarina, who became Maria Catarina in Mexico, Mary Katharine in Iowa and just plain Kate in Kansas.”
               Dodge City is a character, the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Morgan and James, along with the members of the Dodge City Chamber of Commerce, and immigrant Irish girls who have turned to the game to survive.  Doria Russell understands the human condition and writes with extraordinary insight, humour and empathy for both the men and the women of the Western frontier.  This is cowboys and one tragically murdered Indian and a surprisingly tender love story between Doc with his wracking tubercular cough and the feisty, multi-lingual, disputative, lovable whore Kate.
               The novel begins “He began to die when he was twenty-one, but tuberculosis is slow and sly and subtle.”  
               Doria Russell has a forensic eye for detail but never bores.   She is able to weave history into a grand yarn that leaps off the page like a reel to reel Western, so that you hear the horses hooves as it climbs the stairs in the boarding house; you smile when Wyatt Earp gains a smile courtesy of Doc’s dentistry skill and a plate.  You might be moved, like I was to tears, when near the end of this novel, Doc plays the piano.   You might learn something too, like I did, that buffalo skeletons were burned to make printers ink and that teeth were recycled from corpses in the Civil War to be used to make new smiles for the living.    
               Mary Doria Russell comes with her own brand of authenticity as stated in the promotional blurb on the inside back cover.
“Russell is uniquely suited to telling the story of the lawman Wyatt Earp and the dental surgeon John Henry Holliday.   The daughter of Dick Doria, five-term sheriff of DuPage County, Illinois, Mary grew up with guns and cops but she also holds a doctorate in biological anthropology and taught gross anatomy at the Case Western reserve University school of Dentistry before she left academe to write.”
               The lives of the people of Dodge City are recreated in vivid, bold, detailed, humorous and achingly human detail.   Doria Russell knows humans, and horses, she knows Homer; she gets the human condition and her characters are filled in and fleshed out with foibles, and an ordinariness that makes you believe in them.  I was reminded of Charlotte Randall’s ‘Hokitika Town’ in the way both Hokitika and Dodge City become such lively characters in their own right within the novel.
               Mary Doria Russell is acclaimed for three other novels (which I have yet to read) ‘the Sparrow’  ‘Children of God’ and ‘Thread of Grace’.      
               ‘Doc’ is out in paperback in New Zealand in March 2012, but can be purchased from discerning booksellers in the gorgeous hardback edition that I now own.

Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington novelist/poet/bookseller and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.


Morrin said...

Totally agree about Mary Doria Russell. I read the two earlier books, The Sparrow and Children of God and was entranced. I think she was out here for a book festival some years ago - Auckland?- and I remember interviewing her. I am keen to read this new book and can't believe I had let her drop off my list of writers I have to read. said...

Oh, I'd love to see her back at one of our writer festivals - I think she'd be a big hit. Lucky you to interview her Morrin.