Epitaph, by Mary Doria Russell

Why this book Selected by my literature reading group, based on our appreciation for Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and Children of God, and our enjoyment of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove last year. Also it is the sequel to the novel Doc which we read in conjunction with it.

Summary in 3 Sentences: This is a novelized version of the story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers, and Doc Holiday and the circumstances that led up to the gunfight at the OK Corral, what happened that day in 1881, and the brutality that followed it.  Russell says she did extensive research and her novel is based as best she can on the facts as she understood them, though there remains some controversy about many aspects of this legend.  The book concludes with “the rest of the story” about what happened to the main characters in the drama after that dramatic window of time in Tombstone Az in the 1870s and 80s.

My Impressions: I really enjoyed this book – it’s a fascinating period in our history, and these incidents did a lot to create and sustain the image of the Wild West that I grew up with.  Epitaph gives the reader a  look at life in a Western boom town in the 1880s, as well as the “pretty true” story behind the mythology that has grown up around Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and the shoot out at the OK Corral.   Russell clearly did an amazing amount of research – in the acknowledgments she says she “absorbed nineteen linear feet of background books for this novel”  but she also spent a considerable amount of time in Tombstone and traversed on horseback some of the areas where her stories take place, noting that “the five day Wyatt Earp Vendetta ride was the hardest fun I ever had.”

This book flows and follows easily from Doc, though it’s not necessary to have read Doc to thoroughly enjoy the story, characters, setting and insights about life in remote Arizona in the late 19th century.  Epitaph includes just a few of the same characters as Doc, most notably the Earp brothers and their ladies, and Doc Holliday, but it adds many new and interesting additions to the story – people who were part of the historical reality that Russell is novelizing. 

The Story is about the characters and the setting and background that led up to the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, which mythology, several books, and multiple movies have dramatized and exaggerated over the 140 years since it occurred.  A lot of what has been written is conflicting, since there were many different agendas behind the retelling from various sources.  The movies naturally exaggerate and amplify those aspects of the story that will appeal the most to a public paying for a couple of hours of entertainment. In Epitaph, Russell takes the various versions of what happened in Tombstone in the 1880s, and the different stories about the lives of the characters in the drama, and distills them into what she believed was pretty close to the truth, and then with a bit of poetic license added color, context, emotions and dialogue that support the version that she is telling. And in so doing, brings the story to life.  

Epitaph begins describing the childhood of a young girl Josie Marcus, one of the key protagonists in Epitaph who later became Wyatt Earp’s mistress.  She grew up a Jewish immigrant in a NYC tenement and moved with her family to San Francisco. The story progresses by looking individually at several of the characters whose lives converge in Tombstone, and then we get to know the other players in Tombstone, as well as the politics and economy of the boom town, flush with money from recently discovered silver deposits, as well as an influx of ranchers and others hoping to strike it rich, or at least make a living.  Tombstone is rather chaotic with an under developed local government and justice system, and a very strong criminal element used to getting its own way.  All of those factors lead to the OK Corral incident and the bloodshed afterward.  We also get to know the various antagonists – the so called “Cowboys” who are rowdy criminals and cattle rustlers who are generally doing whatever they like around Tombstone and getting their way with impunity  – they have the local authorities intimidated, and the support of local ranchers who are benefitting from their cattle rustling raids into Mexico.

As the story picks up, the details and interactions between the close associates of the Earp brothers – there are four in this story – and the Cowboys led by the infamous Johnny Ringo get more intense as we approach the Ok Corral.  The actual gunfight itself goes pretty quickly – it is said to have only lasted 30 seconds, leaving Virgil Earp and Doc Holiday wounded and 3 cowboys dead.  But the story AFTER the gunfight is even more intense, as the Cowboys vow revenge on the Earps and Doc Holiday, and begin a campaign of disinformation about how it happened, who started it, and partly thru intimidation and disinformation, gain their allies.   Their cause is aided by the sheriff of Tombstone who is an ally of the Cowboys.

The Cowboys nearly kill Virgil, and they do kill Morgan Earp, and are intent on killing Wyatt and Doc Holiday.  At that point, Wyatt gives up on the justice system holding these murderers accountable, and decides to take justice into his own hands.  He, his brother Warren, Doc Holiday and a couple of their other allies begin what is referred to as a Vendetta Ride to hunt down the Cowboys. They do in fact kill three of them – and that is an engrossing part of the book. Wyatt is then indicted for murder but leaves Tombstone before he could be arrested, to follow Josie, his lover to San Francisco.

The last 50 or so pages provide a fascinating look at the lives of Wyatt and his common law wife Josie after leaving Tombstone.  By that time, the story of the OK Coral and Wyatt’s Vendetta Ride have already become mythology in America.  Wyatt and Josie are on the move, trying to make a living, establishing saloons and gambling parlors in numerous towns and cities, including heading North to Nome Alaska during the gold rush.  For a while, they are quietly out-running the legend of the OK Corral, while also looking to profit from Wyatt’s notoriety.  At the end of their lives, their health is failing, and they are strapped for money.   Wyatt is ill and Josie has symptoms of dementia as they’ve entered into the cinematic era.  They are approached by numerous authors and journalists wanting to interview them and write their story, but Josie insists that it be told in a way that leaves out anything she believes doesn’t reflect well on her or Wyatt.   Wyatt dies before Josie, who lives another 10 yrs campaigning to air-brush the truth about her and Wyatt’s lives in Tombstone, giving revised and cleaned up versions to authors and screen writers anxious to capitalize on the legends, to entertain America with a story America wants to believe. 

What I liked about Epitaph

  • The Writing This is the fourth book I’ve read by Mary Doria Russell.  I like her writing, her literary eloquence and how well she tells a story.
  • The History – I believe her version of the story of the Earps, Doc Holiday, Tombstone and the OK Corral are pretty accurate, and follow pretty closely the contours of the known history.  It’s fascinating to step back into that world, painted in pretty good detail by MDR in Doc and Epitaph.
  • The Context – What would it be like to live in a world with little law and order and that much corruption?  We certainly have places in America today that have a lot in common with Tombstone in those days – Chicago?  Baltimore?  How would I behave? What choices would I make?
  • The Characters –  I really liked the characters, and though MDR does well at giving them each a personality and character – the book could have been better (IMHO) had we gotten more deeply into the perspectives of one or two of the characters and seen the world more from their first person perspective.  The book is written from a narrator’s view.  
  • The Final Years – she took the story all the way to the end – the last years of Wyatt and Josie’s lives and we learned briefly about “the rest of the story” of other characters.  That took us into the 20th century – across that great transition in America from the Wild West of Tombstone and other parts of Arizona, to Los Angeles, Hollywood and the beginnings of the modern era. 
  • Relevance to Today – MDR made numerous comments that invited comparisons and perspectives to life in our world today.  These include the struggles of the poor especially in the big cities (NYC and San Francisco), how scandalous and false rumors spread in Tombstone, were believed and shaped the views of the public (similar to what social media does today),  how public anger can become infectious, build momentum, and motivate acts of violence, the role of the press in political activism and shading how events are perceived by the public,  and in Josie’s case, how dementia can amplify strong feelings that can fuel poor judgment.

    Just a few quotes that I liked and that represent Russel’s writing in Epitaph: 

  • A man might wind up in Texas for any number of reasons, but few of them were based on solid achievement elsewhere.  In Texas your Pilgrim Fathers were leftover Mexicans, a bunch of land hungry German immigrants, and hardscrabble Scotch-Irish backwoodsmen.  After the war, you added your white trash and bankrupt planters driven off their land by Yankee troops and carpetbagger taxes – all of them resentful about the way the war had ended. Of course, there were Yankees in Texas, too.  They were apt to be cheerful about the outcome of the conflict, but generally arrived in Texas just as broke….Round the population out with orphans, and runaways looking for others of their kind to gang with – Johnny Ringo was a fair example of that. Anyway, “failure” might be too hard a word for those who’d come west. Unlucky, maybe.  p144

  • Tommy sighed, for there are people – his brother <Frank McLaury.> was one of them – who can become so convinced of their own rendering of events that believing something is tantamount to proof.  Arguing only makes them dig in deeper.  p148

  • Bob Paul: “Crime is compounded by vengeance and brutality.  The law and its strict enforcement are all that separate civilization from barbarism.  That’s why I’m running for sheriff, Wyatt, and I’d like to have your support.”  There were very few men Wyatt Earp looked up to, morally or physically. Robert Havlin Paul was among them.  p 212
  • Seven years after the Crash of 1873….Do what works.  That was the motto. Grab what you can when you can. That was the plan.  It was not a golden age, as Mr Twain had recently pointed out, but a cheap and flashy gilded one.  A time of fakery and exuberant corruption, of patronage and cronyism, and every species of shameless self-seeking .  In such times, even honorable men give up trying to draw the line…p220
  • Sheriff Behan during the Vendetta Ride:  Even if he brought the Earp riders in, what good would it do?   The Arizona justice system was corrupt, top to bottom and all but impotent. Between allies and alibis, nobody was ever convicted of a serious crime. p 498
  • Opinions about the events in Arizona had divided predictably along party lines.  The  Earps were stage robbers, thugs, and murderers; Doc Holliday was worse than any of them, a  quarrelsome drunk and a killer.  Or, the Earps were incorruptible lawmen; Doc Holliday was their loyal friend, a gentleman, and a scholar. There was a reliable market for either version and editorials were easy to write. p520
  •  Doc Holiday; “I don’t believe I shall mind bein’ dead. Gettin’ there has been a trial.”  p526
  •  That’s when his <Bill Hart, movie producer> career really took off, for his films portrayed the Old West with a zeal for authenticity that was immensely appealing to those who were sentimental about a by-gone era, which had lived ugly, but read romantic and ennobling. p 550-51

Epitaph is a fun and captivating way to learn about Wyatt Earp, Tombstone and the end of the crazy Wild West era.  For those who’d like to read more about Earp, Tombstone, and the Ok Corral, I recommend Wikipedia’s article on Wyatt Earp, and  American Heritage’s article on Wyatt Earp .




About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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