For the past three years, when people asked what my next novel is about, I’ve only had to say four words. “It’s about Doc Holliday.” You mention Doc Holliday to guys especially and they just light up. “Oh, man! I love Doc!” they say, and they often mention Val Kilmer’s portrayal in the movie “Tombstone.”
I love that movie, too, but when I write characters, I’m really writing about whom and what they love. The shining silver wire that runs through Doc is John Henry Holliday’s love for his mother.
Alice Holliday was 22 when her son was born near Atlanta in the summer of 1851. She was still in mourning for her firstborn, “a sweet little girl who lived just long enough to gaze and smile and laugh, and break her parents’ hearts.” I’m sure you can imagine her distress when her second child was born with a cleft palate and cleft lip. Even today, when you know clefts can be repaired, they’re a shock.
In 1851, such children commonly died within weeks, but Alice kept her boy alive, waking every hour to feed him with an eyedropper, day and night, for eight long weeks. Think about that exhausted young woman and the baby with the hole in his face. Locking eyes. Struggling to stay awake. Struggling to stay alive…
When the infant was two months old, his uncle Dr. John Stiles Holliday performed a successful surgical repair of the cleft – an achievement kept private to protect the family’s reputation. You see, in the 1850s, the Hollidays were Georgia gentry whose large extended family would become the O’Haras, Wilkeses and Hamiltons in Gone With The Wind. (Margaret Mitchell was Doc’s cousin, twice removed.) These were people who took “good breeding” seriously, and birth defects were a source of familial shame – for everyone but Alice.
Alice and her son became intensely close. She invented a form of speech therapy to correct his diction. She was a piano teacher who introduced him to the music that would become their great shared passion. She home-schooled him until she was sure his speech wouldn’t be ridiculed, then sent him to a local boys academy, where he excelled in every subject. In the midst of our nation’s ugliest war, she raised a shy, intelligent child to be a thoughtful, courteous gentleman and a fine young scholar who would earn the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery before he was 21.
Alice didn’t live to seem him graduate. She died of tuberculosis when John Henry was 15. The loss was staggering, and when he, too, developed TB, he knew exactly what kind of awful death he faced. Hoping dry air and sunshine would restore his health, he left everyone and everything he loved, and went West. He was only 22 when he left Atlanta in 1873.
The Doc Holliday of legend is a gambler and gunman who appears out of nowhere in 1881, arriving in Tombstone with a bad reputation and a hooker named Big Nose Kate. But I have written the story of Alice Holliday’s son: a scared, sick, lonely boy, born for the life of a minor aristocrat in a world that ceased to exist at the end of the Civil War, trying to stay alive on the rawest edge of the American frontier.
John Henry Holliday didn’t have a mother to love him when he was grown, so I have taken him for my own. My fondest hope for Doc is that it will win for him the compassion and respect I think he deserves. Read it, and weep.
-Mary Doria Russell
Consider these questions when reading Doc:
1. Doc Holliday spent nearly all of his 36 years struggling with a series of life-threatening medical conditions. How do you think this affected his personality and the ways that others saw him?
2. Young Dr. Holliday arrived in Texas just as the Crash of 1873 wrecked the nation’s economy. What parallels did you see to our own times? Do you know young people whose plans have been similarly derailed by the Great Recession?
3. How did your feelings about Kate Harony change as the novel went on? Was her relationship with Doc dysfunctional, or do you think they were “a comfort and a support” to one another? What about Mattie and Wyatt? Bessie and James? Alice and Bob Wright?
4. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are often portrayed as best friends, but Russell places Morgan Earp at the center of the novel’s relationships. Why do you think that so many movies and books overlook Morgan?
5. John Henry Holliday was a skilled and gentle dentist, an accomplished pianist, a loyal friend, and an educated man who was often generous, and habitually courteous. He was also easily offended, quickly angry, a heavy drinker, a spendthrift, and a sarcastic snob. Do you think you would have disliked him in real life?
6. The novel touches on many legal and moral issues that are still debated today (prostitution, gambling, abortion, drug and alcohol abuse, gun violence, etc.). Did your opinions about regulation, legalization or prohibition of such behaviors become more nuanced as you read?
7. In the South, “a gentleman is judged by the way he treats his inferiors.” Whom did John Henry Holliday consider his inferiors? Do you think that changed when he went West? What’s the difference between courtesy and respect? What role does race play in the novel?
8. Nearly all the women in the novel were prostitutes at some point in their lives. Doc says that’s because “some man failed them.” Do you believe that? What alternatives did women have in the 1870s? When did that begin to change?
9. Everyone in Dodge has come from someplace else. Given the realities of the frontier, would you have gone West, or would you have tried to stay in the East in the 1870s?
10. Margaret Mitchell said that the character Melanie in Gone With The Wind was based on John Henry Holliday’s childhood sweetheart Martha Anne Holliday, who later became the Catholic Sister of Charity, Sister Mary Melanie. She never mentioned Doc directly, but which character(s) do you think might have been based on John Henry Holliday?