Who can forget the buzz that surrounded Mary Doria Russell’s first novel, The Sparrow, the story of a Jesuit space explorer, the last survivor of a mission? Was this a science fiction novel? A religious allegory? Whatever it was, booksellers and customers were crazy about it, and it led to years of strong sales. One former Schwartz coworker, seemingly sold The Sparrow to every person he talked to, no matter what they came in looking for. OK, some critics were mixed, like this anonymous reviewer in Publishers Weekly.
Russell looked like she was on track with a sequel called Children of God, but then she made a left turn and followed that with two historical, A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day. Jason once mentioned to me that Russell writes her books in pairs, and so he for one was not surprised when her next novel was Doc, a Western that went behind the myth of Doc Holiday, outlaw dentist. And yes, she has followed that up with Epitaph: A Novel of the OK Corral, which releases on March 3, just before our event with Russell on March 5.
I do try to read as many books as I can from upcoming authors, but time has told me that when you have as many events as we do and there are other jobs to be done, I can’t possibly accomplish that. One should also know that some books are better for me not to read, and I shall say no more about that. Now for many years, I had a good excuse as to why I didn’t read Russell. I always worked with so many avid fans that any advance copies I got would go to them. But that enthusiasm is contagious, and after we had at least four recommendations for Doc, and we got the news that we would host Russell for Epitaph, I had to read something.
But a Western, so outside my tastes. And that gave me an idea. One thing the In-store Lit Group always says is that we read books that normally wouldn’t be on their radar. And of course picking Doc would make sure I read it; I’ve only once not finished a book for book club, and boy did I get grief for it. Now one other thing I should mention is that we have already read a Western, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. Now nobody would call that book classic genre, but Russell’s book, at least on the surface, seems more traditional.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. While we were discussing Janice Clark’s The Rathbones, I noted that Clark wrote a historical novel that used the structure and tone of a fantasy, with a strong heroine and lots of ancillary characters that were less important, but to me, what she was doing with that book was world building. And that let me to this realization (with help from reviewers; I don't have an original bone in my body when it comes to critical thinking), that Mary Doria Russell took a classic Western story, stripped away the conventions (there is nary a shoot ‘em up) and rebuilt it as a classic historical novel.
Somewhere between Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel lies the structure of historicals. A sense of place is important, with much research to build the story out. But almost more important than that is character and motivation. And the thing about Doc is that every preconceived notion you had about Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers (particularly Morgan and Wyatt), and Bat Masterson, are held up for reëvaluation. You’ll understand why I spelled the word that way after you read Mary Norris’s Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen*, by the way.
So what did the book club think? We were particularly fascinated by the relationship of Doc and Kate, his off-and-on love interest, the contractor prostitute who had the brains to do far more, but was hampered by the roles of gender and class. But what a foil for Doc; he had nobody else with whom to build an intellectual relationship.
We talked about what led people to the West. Why would people leave civilization for a lawless society? Of course lots of folks were trying to make their fortune, but much like the early attempts to get folks to move to (not really a swamp) Florida, there was a lot of misrepresentation of what Dodge City, Kansas was. It certainly wasn’t much of a place to be a dentist, though I should note that for a few years anyway, John Henry Holliday did a decent amount of business. I love that at that moment, doctors were the quacks and dentists were the more noble profession. And for those who liked the religious aspects of earlier Russell novels, there is Father Paul and Father Alex, too Jesuit priests with very different attitudes.
thing Russell did to tie together the story was one of the fictional characters in the story, John Horse Saunders, an Native/Black kid who was educated in the Jesuit school and moved to Dodge City to work numerous jobs, including dealing cards. His murder (sorry, I’m giving one plot point away) and the whodunit aspect seemed like a secondary frame for the story, and added another aspect to the race/class/gender issues explored in Doc, but some of the attendees were dismayed that it wasn’t true.
Several readers thought that Morgan Earp was the glue that held the characters together. There’s a running storyline about Wyatt’s desire to buy race horses. And illness is another connector. Doc spent most of his life struggling with consumption (tuberculosis), as did his mom and the young daughter of one of Doc’s enemies. One of the things Russell brings to life is just how sickly a fellow Holliday was, quite a change from his pop culture persona.
There are lots of reviews to read, and Ballantine's official book club page, but one particularly interesting article is from the Washington Post, featuring Ron Charles's profile of Russell two years after the book came out. A huge champion of Doc ("fantastic!" is just one of his superlatives, read his review here), Charles noted that Russell had been dropped by her publisher just as the tour was going on, and she chose to not talk about it. I've known a lot of authors who've been orphaned, including two who came to Boswell for their last books who just lost their editor to another house in an announcement this week, and another author who revealed that her editor left during the process for both of her novels, from two different houses. Russell wound up with nine authors for five novels, which really takes the cake.
Our upcoming book club discussions:
--Monday, March 2, 7 pm: The Boy in the Black Suit, by Jason Reynolds
Monday. This second novel follows When I Was the Greatest, which was awarded the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Award from the ALA.
--April 6, 7 pm: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill, with guest co-coordinator Boswellian Carly. Lots of best-of lists for this one, including The New York Times Book Review ten best books of the year, which makes it one of their top five novels.
And don’t forget, Mary Doria Russell is coming to Boswell on Thursday, March 5, 7 pm. This event is free and open to the public but should have a good crowd, so get there a little early.
*Dare I say it? Norris is coming to Boswell on Sunday, April 12, 3 pm. So excited about this one too!