Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell is one of my favorite authors because she tackles large topics fearlessly, humorously and with great compassion. I first read her many years ago in a novel called Children Of God; you can read it stand-alone as I did, but I should have read The Sparrow, which preceded it. That one is about the Jesuits who take the Gospel into outer space, and has some laugh-out-loud moments in the midst of utter hopelessness. Yes. She’s that kind of author, my kind of woman.

Here is the ending Question and Answer from an interview at the back of Doc, an interview with John Connelly:

Q: Authors are often asked what advice they’d give young writers. I would like to ask you a similar question: What do you think the worst advice a young writer could get is?

Mary Doria Russell: Major in English. Join a writer’s group. Blog.

My advice is to major in and do something REAL. Have an actual 3-D life of your own. And please, shut up about it until you’ve got something genuinely wise or useful or thoughtful to share. Then again, I’m a cranky old lady! What the hell do I know?

Reading a book about legendary heroes of the Old West is not something I looked forward to, so the book languished on my “to read” pile until one day I picked it up just because it is written by Mary Doria Russell, and because she has knocked my socks off with every book I’ve read by her.

It starts off slow, summing up the early genteel years of John Henry Holliday in Georgia, just prior to, during and after the War Between the States. At 22 he is diagnosed with acute tuberculosis, and is advised that a drier climate out West might provide him with a more comfortable life, as short as it was likely to be. He had trained as a dentist, so he had a skill. Times were hard, and while he was a very very good dentist, it was a good thing he also had skills with card playing, to supplement his income when people didn’t have the money to go to the dentist.

Don’t skip over the early years, because what happens in the early years resonates into his years living in the West. The majority of the book takes place in Dodge, a border town where laws are made over a card game and by the men who will profit from them. Lives are hard, and short. While it is surely the wild west, the focus is on the relationships Doc builds – Wyatt and Morgan Earp (all the Earp brothers), Bat Masterson, the gals . . . here is where Russell’s artistry shines; the cardboard figures begin to become real people. We start to like one or two, admire another, despise one more.

Here’s what I love about Mary Doria Russell – without being at all preachy, she makes you stop and think about some of the values you hold most dear. Once you get west, 80% of the women featured in the book are prostitutes. Most of the characters drink heavily, and routinely use drugs which are today restricted to prescriptions. There is corruption, and murder, and arson, and abortion, and contraception, and adultery, and there is no one character who is purely good or purely evil, they are all complicated, just as we are. She can lead you to dislike a character, who at just the right moment knows just the right thing to say, and suddenly, you see that character differently, because another facet of his or her character has been revealed.

In the questions at the back of the book, we are asked if we were to meet Doc Holliday, would we like him? I had to ask the question the other way around – if I were to meet Doc Holliday, how would he perceive me? I found myself thinking outside the box, found myself thinking that if I knew my life were going to be very very short, would I want to hang around with normal people, dull, predictable people? Maybe people who look better on the outside than they are, or think more highly of themselves than they ought? Doc Holliday hung around with lawmen and gamblers and prostitutes and bartenders; his patients were law-abiding church-going citizens. Who gave greater color and meaning to his life? Who were more likely to be down-to-earth and practical and unpretentious?

There is an absolutely delightful segment about a Jesuit priest from an old Hungarian aristocratic family who finds himself riding out to visit all the small Catholic Indian parishes on a donkey, replacing a highly popular priest who is very sick; he is teased and mocked and treated with disrespect. One night, cold and wet, covered with dirt and filth in the desert, he has an epiphany that changes his life. Mary Doria Russell books have these luminous moments, worth reading the entire book for, and which will bring a smile of memory to your face long after you have finished reading the book.

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November 3, 2012 Posted by | Adventure, Biography, Books, Character, Civility, Community, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Faith, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Living Conditions | Leave a comment