Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”To understand the gunfight in Tombstone, stop — now — and watch a clock for thirty seconds. Listen to it tick while you try to imagine one half of a single minute so terrible it will pursue you all your life and far beyond the grave."
One of the things I find fascinating about the ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral'* is how the same set of facts can be presented to show one side or the other as the ‘good guys’ or the ‘bad guys’. Were the Earps and Doc Holliday heroes who fearlessly faced down some dastardly cattle rustlers and thieves, or were they corrupt opportunists who essentially murdered some innocent ranchers as part of their efforts to take over the town of Tombstone?
As with most things the reality probably lies somewhere in the middle, and what Mary Doria Russell has done so brilliantly with this historical fiction is to show us a version that feels a lot more true than many of the non-fiction accounts that ascribe some kind of agenda to the actions of those involved. Her depiction here shows all the participants as not mythical incorruptible Western lawmen nor mustache twirling villains. Instead, she tells a story in which they are just flawed people who found themselves at a nasty intersection of local politics, business, and crime that led to series of events that eventually found a group of men trading bullets in a vacant lot that was unfortunately just the beginning of even more violence that would cost them dearly.
The previous Russell book Doc focused on John Henry Holliday and his friendship with the Earps through their days in Dodge City. This one puts Wyatt in the forefront, but like Doc we get the viewpoints of many characters. For example, a lot of the story comes to us via Josie Marcus, the woman who left Sheriff John Behan for his political rival Wyatt which was another key factor in escalating the tensions in Tombstone.
The first part of the book that details the events leading up to the infamous gunfight is a stew of conflicting agendas enhanced by post-Civil War grudges and shady political moves that combine until even the most frantic stirring couldn’t keep that particular pot from boiling over. A lot of this reminded me of HBO’s Deadwood in the way that various schemes play out. There’s also distinct parallels to American society today like the town’s two competing newspapers choosing sides and trying to spin events like a cable news network.
Another interesting aspect is how much time is spent on what happened after the gunfight, and unlike a version such as the film Tombstone which glamorized the ‘vendetta ride of Wyatt Earp’ this version of the story dwells on the immense price that everyone involved paid in one way or another. The book pretty much destroys the romanticized myth of the Old West in which disputes can be permanently settled by showdowns at high noon, and instead presents the much messier reality in which violence kicks off revenge cycles when there’s no strong authority around to put a stop to the whole mess.
Although the Earps and Doc Holliday are definitely the heroes of this story Russell deglamorizes them as legends. Instead she skillfully and compassionately shows how their complicated lives and a variety of good and bad decisions led them to that pivotal thirty seconds, and how those moments haunted and defined their reputations forever afterwards.
* - It’s common knowledge that the shooting didn’t actually happen at the OK Corral, but as Russell writes, “…..it took too long to set the type for 'Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Behind Camillus Fly’s Photography Studio Near Fremont Street.'”
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