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I don't think I ever would have read this book in a million years. The lady who picked it said she had recently enjoyed reading a couple of books about men written by women, such as Unbroken, and wanted to continue along that track. I typically don't do Westerns - even after living in Texas most of my life. One of my worst childhood memories is of having gone to visit my Great Aunt in Indiana. I was the only kid around for miles and one Sunday we were both laid up with a stomach bug. All she would watch the whole day on TV was either Westerns or Shirley Temple movies. I have never watched another Western or Shirley Temple movie in my whole life since. So even with all my baggage and preconceived notions, I was very surprised at how pleasant the book was.
On a scale of 1 - 5
Sex - It's the wild west, there are prostitutes. Doc is involved with a semi-hooker who occasionally says things like, " 'Come to my bed,' she said in English, the language of brothels. 'I can make you forget all those bastards.' // And that little bitch back home, she thought. // 'Come to my bed,' she said, voice low and harsh and foreign, 'and I will f*** you blind.' " (p. 68)
There is a love scene with no anatomical references but the action is clear. Perhaps a speed reader or distracted reader might even miss it because words like "rhythms" and "release" could apply to other things too.
There is some joking about a horse named Dick Naylor which others hear as Nail 'Er.
Religion - There is a traveling priest who comes to town for a significant funeral and also for visits. There are several references to him doing ordinary priest things although most of the main characters are not actively religious.
Gruesome - "The room looked like the aftermath of a birth, or an abortion, or a shooting. Bloodied, muddied clothes - rags now - were heaped in the corner. John was in the chair, propped up with pillows, hunched over an enamel basin half-filled with foamy red fluid. Almost naked, slick and stinking with sweat, ribs visible from spine to sternum. // The stench of gore and necrotic lung tissue was suddenly overwhelming" (p. 362) That's the most gruesome it gets and only once.
Suspense - The book is really not very suspenseful at all. About the only surprising element was how long Doc lived.
Morality - There are so many crooked politicians and political agendas in this book you'd think you were watching CNN. Yet everybody tries to be good and do what's right.
In the beginning of the book there was something that caused me to wonder if Doc Holliday had a cleft palate or lip. At the end of the book the author suggests making a donation to a cleft repair charity. An internet search lists famous people with clefts and counts Doc Holliday among them. This is probably not overly interesting to most readers, but when I get more famous someone will have to add my name to that list of famous people who were born with a cleft palate/lip so therefore it is noteworthy to me.
Another thing that was interesting to me was the mention of the Seminole Negro Indian scouts. They were also mentioned in the book I'm reading to my son - Rifles for Watie. It's nice when his book and my book correspond.
I found a very touching theme of family running through the book. The "family" was not always biological. John Henry's (Doc) mother died when we was 15. His father soon remarried and John Henry moved in with his Uncle & Aunt, who filled the role of parents for him until his death. In his twenties the Earps became like his brothers and there were other town folk that he had a family-type relationship with. It was nice to see that the family really seemed to look after each other and weren't afraid to step-up.
I was a little frustrated by the late character development of Father von Angensperg, Jau Dong-Sing, Bob Wright and Eli Grier. By the time we got their back stories, I didn't care about them because I saw them as supporting players to the main characters that I had already come to think of as friends, despite my being 15 years older than Doc. I think the story would have felt the same at the end without knowing the details of these supporting characters.
I like historical fiction in the sense that I gain some insight into different topics which can then be drawn on with other references to the subject in movies and books and such. But I sometimes get frustrated not knowing how much is fact and what is fiction. So I was super impressed when the author's note addressed the very question that I, and undoubtedly many others, had been wondering, "How much of that was real?" (p. 391) Truly "Si finis bonus est, totum bonum erit." (p. 375)
Question: If your brother remarried would you step up to take a fifteen year old nephew or keep your mouth shut?
Discuss: " 'I can always tell Southerners,' [Johnnie] told Doc at the barbershop. 'Northerners'll tell you where they're goin', not where they're from. Southerners're like Indians. They'll ask who your relatives are until they find out, oh, my mother's sister married your father's uncle, so we're cousins!' "(p. 50)
Discuss: Doc hated playing (dealing) faro because he felt like a thief. Faro was just a way for him to build up cash to play poker. Kate said, " 'Who cares how hard they work?' she cried. 'Nobody puts a gun to their heads.' " (p. 60) Who's right?
Discuss: " 'The work of bringing the Osage from barbarism to civilization and thence to Christianity is a labor not of years but of centuries.' the stolid Dutch priest told Alexander von Angensperg when the Austrian arrived at St. Francis School in 1872. 'Mere decades are too brief a time to yield significant effects.' " (p. 71)
Discuss: "Gazing at her father's photograph, Belle had tried but simply could not imagine a beautiful little girl like Alice looking at the nineteen-year-old Bob Wright and thinking, My hero! Not with Bob's bland, boyish face and his dreadful little chin, which looked so much worse now that he was wearing that big full mustache! Belle could hardly stand to be int he same room with him these days, given the amount of sheer physical effort required not to cringe." (p. 162)
Discuss: " 'A necessary evil.' Bessie Earp had heard that hackneyed phrase all her life, and it made her want to spit. Well, which is it? She always wanted to ask. Can something necessary be evil? Can something evil be necessary? // With prostitutes, Necessity claimed, the filthy impulses and ungovernable desires of man would have no other target than respectable women, for prostitution drains away the sins of Christian society, as a sewer carries filth from a city. // Well, then, Bessie wondered, why not treat the girls who do Necessity's ugly work with some respect? Why not give them the small dignity of a ditch digger or a street sweeper? // Because, Evil replied, their own lust is to blame for their degradation. They are unredeemed sinners, these drunkards and drug fiends. As long as they ply their dirty trade their wages will be ill treatment, appalling disease, and short, unhappy lives. // If the doves are soiled, who dirtied them? That's what Bessie wished someone would ask? If the women have fallen, who pushed them? But reformers would go just this far and no farther: lament the sin, but ask no questions. // And so in every city in America, a corrupt farce played out before a respectable audience eager for cautionary tales of female depravity. The police arrested the girls and marched them down public avenues to be stared at by jeering crowds of nice people. Judges levied fines and sent the girls out penniless, with no way to pay for their next meal except go back to whoring. Politicians railed against unrepentant wickedness to win votes. And later that night, all of the bastards - cops, judges, and politicians - were in the house, winking and jovial, collecting their cut of the brothel income and taking some out in trade. // ... // Who could you complain to? To what court did you bring your suit when the judge beat the girl? Who'd jail the extortionist if the chief of police said it was legal for the house to sell liquor one week, drank with your girls the next, and arrested you for it the third? How do you change the laws when the johns can vote but the girls can't?" (p. 170-171)
Question: Do you think Doc fooled as many people as he contrived to fool with his tactics to mask his poor health?
Question: Doc said, "I do not want to spend another minute of whatever I have left bein' scared. I can't carry the fear anymore. Not mine. Not yours. I have to lay that burden down." (p. 228) Was this a good strategy for Doc?
Discuss: "Every one of them has a story, and every story begins with a man who failed her." (p. 250) Agree or disagree?
Question: The writer uses a rather direct style of foreshadowing such as on page 316, "Kate had made him a promise. He held her to it. // Later she would rage at him, at his stupidity and arrogance and pride. She would swear that if she'd known what he intended, she never would have agreed to help." What do you think of this technique? Does it make the fictionalization seem more factual?
Question: "...Schopenhauer's advice. Eat a toad first thing in the morning; the rest of the day will seem pleasurable by comparison." (p. 288) Words to live by?
Question: Were you surprised about Eli Grier and Alice Wright?
Discuss: " 'Flaubert tells us that three things are required for happiness: stupidity, selfishness, and good health. I am,' he told Morgan, 'an unhappy man -' " (p. 344)
Question: When Doc was playing the piano at Bat's Christmas party, who was more selfish:
a) Doc for wanting to die while playing
b) Kate for not wanting Doc to leave her
c) Wyatt for wanting Doc to finish the music
In our small, country town in Texas, on the outskirts of a big city, there is an actual Steakhouse and Rodeo establishment. We met in their restaurant to discuss this book.