In “Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral,” novelist Russell infuses new life into a well-known story. Russell appears in conversation with Nancy Pearl Tuesday, March 24, at Seattle’s University Book Store.
‘Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral’
by Mary Doria Russell
Ecco, 581 pp., $27.99
The nine gunmen who blazed away at each other in 1881 have been trotted out to the vicinity of the O.K. Corral so many times it’s a wonder there’s any literary life left in them.
In the hands of Mary Doria Russell, there’s plenty.
And in their women, too.
Mary Doria Russell
The author of “Epitaph” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 24, in conversation with Nancy Pearl at Seattle’s University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E.; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
Anyone writing about the most famous gunfight in the American West has plenty of material to work with. There’s the famous names: Wyatt Earp and his brothers; Doc Holliday; Johnny Ringo; Ike Clanton. There’s a love triangle, political rivalries, opium dens and saloons, prostitutes, gambling, stagecoach robberies and lots of violence.
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So how could she miss?
But many writers have, and Russell, who published a previous novel based on the life of Doc Holliday (“Doc”), must have been aware of their failings, since she read “nineteen linear feet of background books” in researching “Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral.”
Given all that has been written, filmed and spoken about the gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on Oct. 26, 1881, there are probably few readers who don’t know what happened there.
So dangling the outcome as suspense would be a fool’s errand in telling this story. Russell is wise in recognizing that. Instead, she uses the knowledge of what’s coming as a touchstone throughout her telling of the saga, stepping in as the narrator to remind readers of where events are headed and fitting the pieces of acrimony into a growing understanding of why the gunmen would face off that day — and why the bloodshed did not end there.
Her writing is so vivid it seems she must have been there. She’s best out in the open — with a posse riding through the cactuses, the dust and the mesquite. And it turns out she was there, 134 years late, but her retracing on horseback brings to life Earp’s ride to find and kill the suspected murderers of his brother.
She is also wise in matters of love, sex and philandering. She enters a man’s world easily, getting inside the heads of horny men and the women who served their lust.
Her attention to bringing Earp’s women to life stands out in the Tombstone chronicles, especially with the story of Josephine Sarah Marcus, who was the one-time lover of Sheriff Johnny Behan before leaving him for his sometime rival, Earp.
Some modern issues find their way into “Epitaph.” Gun control is an issue in Tombstone, and the attempted confiscation of firearms is ultimately the raison d’être for the gunfight. Domestic violence is common, concussions influence behavior and real estate is on a bubble.
Russell gives the readers a storybook ending — if they choose to stop reading 60 pages from the “end” of the book, as she invites them to do in her most effective interruption as narrator. If they keep going, readers will find out what really happened.
Steeped in the lore of Wyatt Earp, the young lawman in Dodge City and Tombstone, some readers may not be able to imagine him as an old man. Russell does it for them, quietly transitioning from “Wyatt” and “Sadie” in the early years to the respectful “Mr. and Mrs. Earp” at the end.
As Russell says, it matters where a tale begins and ends and “who tells the story and why … That makes all the difference.”
Russell has made a big difference in bringing this story to life again.