The Lily of the West
Kathleen Morris attempts to fill a gap in Old West lore with her novel of Mary Katherine Haroney, better known as “Big Nose Kate,” the common-law wife of Dr. John Henry “Doc” Holliday. The Lily of the West traces Haroney’s life from her early teens through Doc Holliday’s death in 1887 in an attempt to flesh out a woman whom most historians have treated as a side note. Unfortunately, this novel does little to bring Haroney to life.
Throughout the novel, the exciting events of Haroney’s life are related in emotionless summary. From the family’s flight from Mexico to the death of Haroney’s baby to the shootout in Tombstone, Morris misses chance after chance to show the reader Haroney’s suffering. Annoyingly, every time Haroney escapes danger—which is often—Morris jumps ahead a month or even a year in time and has Haroney, now safe and secure in a new place, summarize what happened, often using anachronistic phrases.
My biggest complaint, however, is that the novel lacks a focal point. The first third of the book traces Haroney’s life from her early teens to her mid-twenties. The next two-thirds of the book tell of her relationship with Holliday. When Morris ends the novel with Holliday’s death, I felt as if the first 125 pages of the book had been pointless. Why start so early in Haroney’s life if the intent was to detail her relationship with Holliday? On the other hand, if the novel truly were intended to recount Haroney’s entire life, why end with Holliday’s death? Haroney lived another fifty-three years. It’s insulting to suggest that a woman’s story ends when her man dies. The Western genre deserves a good book about Kate Haroney. Unfortunately, The Lily of the West is not it.