Do cowboys go to the dentist?

Doc is available from the library in hardcover.

“Doc” is available from the library in hardcover.

Jen McCormack InĀ Doc, Mary Doria Russell takes iconic historical figures (Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson) and tells a fantastic story that gives them life and personality, making them seem like someone you’ve met.

Doc is a favorite for me because it combines history of the American West (Dodge City) with history of medicine. You may know that Doc Holliday was a gambler, a faro dealer, and a friend of Wyatt Earp, but you probably didn’t know he was a dentist by trade as well. If that thought seems ho-hum, just imagine practicing dentistry on men and women who have never seen a toothbrush, let alone floss, using barber stools in your exam rooms and whiskey as a painkiller!

Doc Holliday

Doc Holliday

But dentistry doesn’t carry the whole story (as fascinating as it is). Doc is truly a tale of a complicated young man and his friendships with the Earp brothers, his stormy relationship with the prostitute Kate Harony, and his unsuccessful struggle with tuberculosis. John Henry Holliday is a brilliant man, generous to the point of foolishness and a steadfast loyal friend: Russell will make you love him and hope for a better ending than you know is inevitable.

I should warn you that Russell’s novels are not light reading–they are thoroughly researched and rich with details. Every book opens with a list of characters and their background, something you’ll find yourself referring to frequently as you read.

And boy do these characters talk! Russell gives her characters plenty of dialogue, all in the dialect of the time and place, adding to the feeling that the reader has been transported to Dodge City in 1878.

Doc won’t be a quick read that you can sneak in during lunch breaks; he will invite you in for a leisurely visit to the Old West, and you’ll find it hard to leave when you’re done.

If Doc isn’t available I highly recommend any of Mary Doria Russell’s historical fiction. If you’d really like to read another novel set in the old west, leave a comment below and I’ll suggest some other great titles. Or email me at

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

1 comment to Do cowboys go to the dentist?

  • Shirley McCormack

    Good job, Jen! Makes me want to read this novel, even tho I generally like my history reading non-fiction.