'Epitaph' Dispels Hollywood Myths About the Gunfight at O.K. Corral
Doria Russell finds heroes in the errant in Epitaph, a novel that captures the realities of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and much more.
Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. CorralPublisher: Ecco
Length: 581 pages
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Publication date: 2015-03
Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral isn’t Mary Doria Russell’s first time in the saddle; the New York Times bestselling author had a western hit in 2011’s Doc, about John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Encouraged by the reception that her break from sci-fi convention into the world of historical fiction received, Russell mustered up what could be called her first-ever sequel, here part two, if you will, which is set around the actual events leading to the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.
Russell prides herself on her research, and here she cracks through the fantastical mold that so often envelopes traditional western fiction (in part thanks to Hollywood mischief), and peels back the curtain on a world ten times more vibrant than many realize. In addition to her research, the author took a trip herself, on horseback, through the mountainous desert terrain surrounding Tombstone. She did this to better grasp the struggle that Doc Holliday faced while traveling through that same area, albeit under harsher conditions. (He would eventually die of tuberculosis.) Her studiousness is to be applauded, and the task of deconstructing US history’s most famous shootout, while leaving no character undeveloped, and no character forgotten, is a literary accomplishment unto itself. Going the extra mile, on horseback, no less, shows Russell's passion for this work.
One character in Epitaph is fictional, and while many actual conversations depicted no doubt are fictional, as well, Epitaph was written with a studied respect for each individual in the story. In not aiming to achieve a depiction of the classic romanticized epic, and instead opting for something much more real in its shot and trajectory, Russell has, perhaps accidentally, developed her most romantic epic to date. For all at once there's political drama, arduous fights for love and power, a lingering question of morality, and a sweeping history lesson on the realities of 19th century life in the American West. Indeed, Russell crafts a tale that is as easy to get lost in as it is comprehensive, as it's brimming with detail that seems hand-sewn to replicate the era and its scenes’ key players incredibly well.
At one point Russell examines life as it was within the Jewish sector of San Francisco, and at another, she gives Josephine Marcus a helping hand on a piano piece through the assistance of Doc Holliday; the intimacy of the situation offers a certain propensity to the composition as a conversation piece. Here, Russell writes as if in close proximity to the main characters — especially with Josie and Wyatt Earp -- as the story looms ever nearer to its titular moment. Elsewhere, she broadly paints scenes that provide an overarching scope, making the overall picture all the more clear to behold. Musings on gun prohibition, gangsters, assassinations, political debate, and women who actually hold their own in the Old West all lend themselves to the epic nature of the novel. This makes the end all the more poignant, as Wyatt avenges his younger brother’s death, and loses his moral compass in the process.
One of the biggest truths that Russell divulges throughout the course of Epitaph is that the titular shooting did not actually take place at the O.K. Corral. The story took up less space in newspaper type, she quips, than to call “The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”, “The Gunfight at the Empty Lot Adjacent to C.S. Fly’s Photography Studio”. The vast differences between Russell’s telling of this historical event and that of Hollywood’s depictions is that hers is as real as it gets. Indeed, Russell writes with fearless realism, her characters are prone toward gritty misdeeds, and questions of valor and ethics run strongly through her telling. For fans of Doc, Epitaph is the next logical step in Russell's oeuvre, and or anyone who enjoys the western genre, and historical fiction in general, Epitaph will not disappoint.