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Tuesday, April 26, 2016


I can trace my fascination with the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" to when I received the first book in the Time-Life series "The Old West." The first volume was called The Gunfighters, and the first chapter dealt with the shootout in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on October 26th, 1881. I have the book in storage, but I still remember the drawing of the event, with each of the participants in each spot they occupied.

That was about forty years ago, and I've seen all of the films and read as much as I could about it. Now comes a hefty novel, Epitaph, by Mary Doria Russell. It is a novel, and according to her acknowledgements some of the events and dates have been altered, but it seems a well-researched book. It isn't brilliant prose--I think this book is more for enthusiasts than for the casual reader.

"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." That's how Russell starts her tale, and it's full of the political shenanigans that were going on in Tombstone at the time. The fight itself was between the Earps, all lawmen of a sort, and their deputized friend, Doc Holliday, and "cow boys," the Clantons and McLaurys, but the reasons had a lot to do with politics. The early chapters of the book focus on Johnny Behan, a political boss, and his rivalry with Earp. Even back then, and that far west, there were squabbles between Democrats and Republicans, or as that translated, Rebs and Yankees.

As the story begins, the Earps are already in Tombstone. The only backstory Russell gives us is that of Josephine Marcus, who left San Francisco to join a theatrical troupe and ended up in Tombstone with Behan as his mistress. She would later join Wyatt Earp as his common-law wife for 45 years, and though she leaves the story for great chunks you can tell she is a favorite of Russell's. That can also be said of Holliday (Russell wrote a novel about him simply called Doc). He was a dentist, gambler, and gunslinger who comes across as the most interesting character in the novel. He is well read, knows Latin and Shakespeare, and is fiercely loyal. He is also consumptive, and through the whole book he is slowly dying.

Russell takes us almost day by day through the year or so before the gunfight. There is a stagecoach robbery, for which the Earps and Holliday are blamed. There is the side characters of Curly Bill Brocious and Johnny Ringo (yes, he really existed), and the details of life in a frontier town. All of the Earp women are featured--at that time Wyatt was still married to the laudanum addict Mattie Blaylock--and we get a great sense of the domesticity of the life out west, but also of the random and sudden violence.

The details about the shootout are still up for grabs, and Russell goes with what most of us know--that the Earps were in the right, though perhaps a little too forceful about it (Tom McLaury may have been unarmed). The book continues through the legal proceedings, as the Earps and Holliday were tried for murder, and then the vendetta that Wyatt takes after his brother Virgil is badly wounded and another brother Morgan is assassinated. Wyatt, as he has been portrayed in film (especially by Kurt Russell in Tombstone) was like an angered snake. He lived a long life afterward (he was never hit by a bullet) and died in old age in 1927.

I enjoyed this book, and even learned some new things (I hadn't known about Behan before, or if I did I forgot it). It is a long book, full of detail that may wear down a reader who isn't into Westerns, and even some that might, given that this is a historically accurate book (no black hats and white hats here). But if you're a Western history buff, and enjoyed Tombstone, you will like this book, because it doesn't veer much from that film.

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