In ‘Epitaph’ a century-old story has very modern overtones

IN A NUTSHELLUnknown - Version 2

  • Unknown-5Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell (Ecco, 2015) audiobook narrated by Hillary Huber (HarperAudio)
  • In 40 words or less: Masterful research brings the history and people of the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral to life. Vivid descriptions and dialog fill out the political and social history. It will change any assumptions you may have of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: Arizona Territory
  • Time: Primarily 1880-1882
  • Read this for a well-written story and a better understanding of the human stories and political dynamics of the Arizona Territory. Today’s Republicans and Democrats have nothing on them.

Only a fool would try to pigeon-hole Mary Doria Russell’s writing style. Her first novel, The Sparrow, captured numerous science fiction awards. A Thread of Grace, a historical novel of the Italian Resistance and the Holocaust was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Epitaph is her second novel about two of the West’s most celebrated figures – Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. I’ve been a fan for more than a decade and was not disappointed with Epitaph.

Tombstone, Arizona Territory in the early 1880’s was a bustling town with more than 10,000 people, two newspapers and all the standard businesses of the period. All sides in Post-Civil War politics were well-represented in the Territory, vying for the power to determine the future of its evolving government.

Local politics were very fractious in the counties in the Territory. Winning the position of Sheriff was financially very lucrative, receiving often 10% of taxes collected. And since there often were alliances with assessors, mudslinging and shady deals were not uncommon. Cowboys were a synonym for rustlers and stagecoaches were often targets for robberies. Lawmen often had more than one boss, truly a gun for hire. As Russell lays out the complicated circumstances that led up to the shootout, the politics and shifting business loyalties often put lawmen directly in the line of fire.

Medical science was brought out through Doc Holliday’s ongoing battle with tuberculosis and the slow and painful death of President Garfield, due to infection, after he was shot by Charles Giteau. In the aftermath of the shootout, Holliday, a dentist by training, insisted  over their objections that the doctors use hygienic practices to treat the Earps’ wounds. Alcoholism and laudanum dependence mirror today’s substance abuse issues.  At every step, Russell enriches the understanding of life at that time.

Many stories about the West give women minor roles. Josie (Sadie) Marcus’ left a privileged life in San Francisco’s Jewish community to seek fame and fortune with a theater company,  like her idol Sarah Bernhardt. Achieving minor success, she hitches her star to a political aspirant and moves with him to Tombstone. There she develops a friendship with Doc Holliday and he keeps an eye out for her, recognizing she is in an unhealthy relationship. Josie leaves the unscrupulous philanderer, prostituting herself to make ends meet. Only after many missteps does Wyatt’s and Josie’s  decades-long love story begin. Each of the Earp brothers brought a woman with him when they left Kansas for Arizona. Russell deftly brings out their different interests and temperaments, as she does with each of the brothers.

At every turn, another aspect of the complexity of life at this time is revealed in Epitaph. Interested in the role of gambling or immigrant issues?  It’s there.  Border and political issues with the Mexican government are there, too. The local papers are controlled by competing political groups. Epitaph provides a striking reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

A very able narrator, Hillary Huber, read the audiobook as I traveled from Florida back home to the DC area. While her skill and careful differentiation of characters through tone and accent added an extra dimension to the novel, it is Mary Doria Russell’s words and storytelling that carry the day however the book is “read.” In this political crazy season, Epitaph is a perfect book to carry you away while reminding you that change will happen again and again and again.

2 thoughts on “In ‘Epitaph’ a century-old story has very modern overtones”

  1. An excellent synopsis of and commentary on Epitaph. I highly recommend Russell’s previous book, Doc, focused on Doc Holliday and his relationships with the Earp brothers and his long-time companion, Kate. Surprisingly, the book has little gunslinging and a whole lot of heart and wit. The audio version is superb.

    Also, fans of these two books may want to check out Lady at the OK Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp by Ann Kirchner. This is a biography that serves as a nice complement to the Russell books, especially Epitaph. What I found particularly fascinating was the account of Josephine’s obsessive efforts after Earp dies to rewrite history and shape the legacy of Wyatt Earp. (And I love the image of Wyatt sitting at a Passover seder wearing a yarmulke.😊)

    1. Deborah, thanks for adding that information. Books like these cross several genres and are a wonderful change of pace for someone in a reading rut.I had forgotten the specifics on the biography and will keep an eye out for it. Some of my book groups enjoy nonfiction and it may be a good pick!

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