Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral

Written by Mary Doria Russell
Review by Marina Maxwell

One chapter in this novel begins: “Tombstone was glad to see the end of 1881. Hell of a year, everyone said, shaking their heads. Fire, flood, famine, blood in the street”.

The blood, of course, refers to the notorious Gunfight at the O.K. Corral when three Cow Boys were killed by Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday. But the fire, flood and famine are also included in this prodigious epic that ducks and weaves through political, criminal and newspaper rivalries, as well as the murky and shifting personal relationships of all those involved. The characters – women as well as men – are as tough and prickly as the landscape that shapes them. The focus of the novel switches back and forth among these numerous real individuals, who were the catalysts for the shoot-out and instrumental in the eventual creation of the legend, both in print and in Hollywood.

It will help to have read the author’s earlier work, Doc, as it can be difficult for the uninitiated to get a grip on the entanglements and prior doings of Holliday and the Earp brothers, even if some back stories are revealed in time-shift passages. But ultimately there is just so much swirling about in the mix that it becomes a challenge to stay the course.

The droll catch-phrase of the local newspaper, “Every Tombstone has its Epitaph”, might be reflected here in the librarian’s maxim that every book has its reader. For those who like multi-viewpoint blockbusters loaded with facts and historical research, then this will be a sure-fire winner, but others who prefer lean narrative and restraint are likely to give up. They may get just as much out of Wikipedia if they really want to know what happened.