The Love Letter of John Henry Holliday

Written by Mary Fancher
Review by Steve Donoghue

The “John Henry Holliday” referred to in the title of Fancher’s elegant, intensely moving new novel is the “Doc” Holliday of OK Corral infamy, friend to Wyatt Earp and participant in one of the most famous gun battles of the American West. The governing conceit of Fancher’s book is a long, rambling letter written by Holliday to his cousin Mattie, a nun in the order of The Sisters of Mercy. Fancher has hit upon the simple but inspired idea of using the historical correspondence the two shared as the backbone around which Holliday’s memories flesh out his entire life, including his stint in the Civil War, culminating in many ways in the famous shootout in Tombstone, Arizona. The novel leads the reader right up to the threshold of Holliday’s death in Colorado in 1887. “Like all the towns he’d been in,” Holliday observes at one point, “Tombstone played host to its share of marginal men leading marginal lives.”

Through Fancher’s careful research and spare eloquence, we are left with the sharply memorable impression that Holliday himself, though often poor and downcast, was anything but marginal, and Fancher’s portraits of many other figures in Holliday’s life are equally lovingly detailed. The result is a slim but powerful reading experience. Highly recommended.