Review: Epitaph

EpitaphMary Doria Russell, Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

In the late 19th century, Tombstone, Arizona was a thriving silver-mining town in the American West, but it has become known to history only as the site of the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. The story has been told many times and has become part of the mythology of the Wild West. But what was the fight really like for the men and women who lived it? What were its real causes? Who was really to blame? This novel, the follow-up to Doc, seeks to re-examine the legend and portray events as they really happened — or might have happened. The story begins more than a year before the gunfight, with local and national politics having a significant effect on daily life in Tombstone. Wyatt Earp wants to be sheriff someday, but although he is a man of integrity, he is too naive to realize that others are manipulating him. Meanwhile, the Clantons and the McLaurys are cattle thieves, pejoratively dubbed “cow boys,” who resent the intrusion of the lawmen onto their traditional way of life. These two conflicting ideologies are bound to clash, but in the fallout from the gunfight, the truth is obscured by many conflicting versions of the story, until at last it is covered by legend.

My summary of this book was a pain to write, and I definitely didn’t do it justice, but all you really need to know is that I loved this book! When I read Doc a couple years ago, I thought, “This is why I love historical fiction!” And the same is true of this follow-up novel. I love how Russell is able to take legendary historical figures and make them real, living, breathing people. I love how she pays as much attention to the women of Tombstone as to the men, from the Earp brothers’ common-law wives to the beguiling Josephine Sarah Marcus, whose love for Wyatt Earp would eventually lead to her distorting the events of the gunfight and building Wyatt into a legend. I also got a huge kick out of the fact that each chapter heading is a phrase from the Iliad, which emphasizes the epic, mythic nature of the stories surrounding the gunfight. Another fun fact is that “Epitaph” was the name of one of the local newspapers in Tombstone, so even the book’s title has many layers of meaning. My one complaint is that I would have liked a little bit more of Doc Holliday and his lover, Kate. But anyone who loved Doc should definitely read this novel too! Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction.

Review: Doc

DocMary Doria Russell, Doc

This is a novel about the legendary Doc Holliday, known to history for his involvement in the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. But this book isn’t about that particular historical event; rather, it’s about who Doc Holliday really was, or at least who he might have been. It starts with John Henry Holliday’s childhood in Georgia: how he survived the aftermath of the Civil War and Sherman’s march; how he loved music and the finer things in life; and how he was profoundly affected by his mother’s death. It describes how he became ill with the disease that eventually killed him, and how his health forced him to seek a more arid climate out West. Finally, it depicts his life in Dodge City, Kansas, and the friendships and relationships he formed there, particularly with Kate Harony — an educated, passionate, and temperamental whore — and with a taciturn lawman named Wyatt Earp.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and this book is a perfect example of why. It brings the Wild West to life in an extremely vivid way, particularly the struggles of a frontier town in an era where the law offered very little protection to its citizens. I was fascinated by the political machinations at work in Dodge, where social issues like prostitution and Prohibition were intimately entangled with the local economy, and where political elections were often decided over a hand of cards. The characters in this book are as well-depicted as the setting: I felt like I truly got to know Doc and Wyatt, what made them tick, and how they managed to rise above their time while also being defined by it. They are both admirable characters, but Russell doesn’t shy away from describing their very real flaws. Overall, this book transported me to another time, and I absolutely loved it. Definitely one of my top reads of the year!

Review: True Grit

True GritCharles Portis, True Grit

In the postwar American West, Mattie Ross is a girl on a mission: her father has been killed by one of his drunken hired hands, and she’s determined to avenge his death. Despite being only 14 years old, Mattie has utter faith in her own ability to achieve her goal. As she arranges her father’s burial rites, she demands to know the name of a U.S. Marshal with “true grit” — someone who will be able to hunt down her father’s killer and exact retribution. Thus Mattie sets out with Rooster Cogburn, who is technically on the side of the law but whose own past is murky at best, and a Texan cowboy named LaBoeuf, who is hunting the same man for a different crime, on a quest for justice and revenge.

Though I don’t normally read Westerns, I’m very impressed with the ones I’ve been reading this year! The best part of this book is Mattie’s voice, which is completely distinctive and very funny, often unintentionally. For example, here’s a tidbit in which Mattie asks the sheriff about the various U.S. Marshals who could help her:

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “…The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. … Now L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” … I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?”

Another thing I found fascinating about this novel was its exploration of law in the Wild West. Near the beginning of the book, Mattie transcribes the trial of a man whom Rooster Cogburn had caught, complete with lawyers’ arguments and objections. It’s easy to see that, in the world of this novel, the law is largely ineffective and irrelevant to the men whose job is enforcing it. Perhaps that’s why Mattie feels such a strong urge to personally ensure that justice (as she sees it) is done. I’d definitely recommend this book as a quick, adventurous read that raises some thought-provoking questions.

Review: The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters BrothersPatrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers

The eponymous Sisters brothers are Charlie and Eli, two of the most notirous hired gunmen in the West. Eli narrates the story of their adventures as they set out to perform a job for their boss, the Commodore. They have orders to kill a man named Hermann Kermit Warm, who is reported to be in San Francisco. As Eli and Charlie travel towards their target, they encounter many strange and interesting people, including a boy who is determined to get to California despite all his relatives being dead or gone; a pretty bookkeeper who is dying of consumption; and a dentist who introduces Eli to the wonders of toothbrushes. Eli also ponders the nature of life and begins to wonder whether he really wants to continue his career of violence. Will the Sisters brothers ever catch up with Hermann Kermit Warm, and if so, will Eli be able to finish the job?

I’m happy to say that I can add to the large number of positive reviews I’ve seen for this book. Even though I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Westerns, I enjoyed the setting of this book because it provided a perfect backdrop for Eli’s interior journey. Although he and Charlie encounter other people from time to time and even stay in towns occasionally, the bulk of the action seems to take place when they’re alone with each other. This gives Eli plenty of time to reflect on his bond with Charlie and discover what links them together, as well as what makes them different. The plot is definitely secondary to this central relationship. I also really liked the moral complexity of the characters. Even though Eli is the main protagonist, the book never quite lets you forget that he is accustomed to killing people in cold blood; in fact, he and Charlie do some pretty despicable things in the novel. I’m very impressed that the book managed to make the Sisters brothers likeable despite their many faults. Overall, I’m definitely glad that I read this book and will look forward to seeing what deWitt writes next.

Review: Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtryLarry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

This epic Western tells the story of a group of cowboys who decide to drive a cattle herd from the small town of Lonesome Dove, Texas, to the wilds of Montana. Leading the outfit are former Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae, whose prowess in fighting Indians has made them legendary throughout the Wild West. They take a small group of cowboys with them on the journey, including several men who served with them when they were the only law in Texas. One woman also accompanies them, a prostitute named Lorena who has fallen in love with one of the cowboys. The book follows this group on its journey north, describing the various perils the cowboys meet along the way, including bad weather, hostile Indians, and a growing despair as they confront more and more suffering.

This is the first Western I’ve ever read, although I’ve seen and enjoyed several John Wayne movies. But I definitely think this was the right novel to start with, as it seems to encapsulate the entire scope of what a Western should be. I was especially impressed with the descriptions of the country, its weather and its wildlife. I honestly did feel transported to another place and time. The character development is also very well done; every person encountered in the book seems clearly delineated, with his (or her) own goals, fears, and desires. In a book this long, so much specificity is quite a feat! I especially enjoyed the depictions of women in the novel; I was amazed to think of what a hard life they must have had in such unsettled, lawless country. My one complaint about the book is that it’s extremely long, which made it hard for me to find the motivation to read it. It’s also quite heartbreaking in places…I don’t want to spoil anything, but a lot of people die throughout the course of the novel. But overall, I was very impressed with this book and would definitely recommend it!