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by Mary Doria Russell
Reviewed by Lisa Sanders

Doc Holliday is known primarily as Hollywood and dime store novels have portrayed him: as a cold-blooded gunslinger, calculating at cards, and most often with a whiskey in one hand and a revolver in the other. There is little historical record with which to correct this caricature: some family documents, a few newspaper clippings, and the memoir of a ninety-year-old former prostitute named Kate. But Mary Doria Russell took these remnants of a life and created a character study of the man that John Henry Holliday may have been, or might have been if things had gone in a slightly different direction. As she quotes Hemingway in her epigraph: "The book is fiction, but there is always a chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact."

John Henry Holliday was born and raised to be a Southern gentleman. With his father and uncles off fighting the Yankees, John Henry was taught by his doting mother to love music, defend his honor, and treat women well. Well-educated and sophisticated, John Henry was meant for a life in the East. But such was not to be. Just as Atlanta society was beginning to take notice of this tall, newly minted dentist with a bright future, John Henry was diagnosed with advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. He was 21.

That's when Holliday's life "cracked in half." In a desperate attempt to prolong his life, John Henry's family packed him off to Texas, where the drier air was said to help consumptives. "He began to think that maybe he could beat this thing after all. Hope smiled, and the Fates laughed." The collapse of the banks ended his hopes of a profitable dentistry practice, and he turned to the ungentlemanly art of the professional gambler as a way to support himself. At the tables he met Kate, a former aristocrat reduced to prostitution. Well-educated, occasionally charming, and often hot-tempered, Kate would become Holliday's lifelong companion in a tumultuous relationship that may have hastened his ruin. She was the force that brought him to Dodge.

Once there, the man known as "Doc" Holliday begins to take life, in large part through his relationships with others. Most of the characters in the book are taken from the pages of history: Wyatt and Morgan Earp, Bat Masterson, Bob Wright, and Kate. But a few invented characters allow Russell to explore particular aspects of Doc's personality: his views on race, the life of the outsider, and his desperate need for intellectual fulfillment. Each character and every relationship is used as a way to delve further into the inner life of an enigmatic man. Was he the cool killer Hollywood makes him out to be? How much of his persona was show for the gaming table, and how much was real? How did he reconcile his Southern upbringing and introspective nature with the wild, gritty reality of Dodge?

The plot moves swiftly, and Russell's characters are so lifelike and likable that I wanted to join them at the card table. Running throughout is the question of how we choose to live our lives in the face of certain givens. We all have to live with the hand we're dealt, but how we play the cards is up to us. I would like to think that Russell got it right, and that Doc is an accurate historical guess, but in the end it doesn't matter. Such a man could have existed, and that's enough for me.