So much has been written about the OK Corral I almost passed this book up. Now I consider Epitaph: A Novel of the OK Corral the best historical novel on the American West I’ve ever read.
Historical fiction often suffers when authors dwell too much on historical fact at the expense of a good story, or as in the case of most accounts of the OK Corral, allow the fiction to run away from the facts. Mary Doria Russell achieves a perfect balance. Learn and be entertained at the same time. It’s “edutainment” at its best.
Ever wonder what these famous characters were really like? How they were raised, what drove them, what and who they cared about, how they made a living, what happened to them after the famous fight? If you like books with extensive character development, you’ll love Epitaph. And it’s not just the famous personalities you learn about. Their relatives, wives, mistresses, get in-depth profiles as well. You end up feeling like you really know these people. And you’re glad you do.
The author has mastered the omniscient point of view as well as anyone I’ve read. When as narrator she imposes her own view, you’re glad she did, because it’s insightful. When she flits seamlessly from one character’s head to another’s, you’re swept right along with her. She knows how to let the reader draw conclusions about characters without explaining them. Here’s an interchange between Curly Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo and Ike Clanton. Clanton’s part of the conversation consists almost entirely of repeating phrases he hears from others:
“Toss in an extra twenty for me and the boys,” Curly Bill suggested, upping the ante, “and you got yourself a deal.”
“You got yourself a deal!” Ike said happily.
Ike’s mouth worked a bit. You could see he was trying to decide if that was good or bad, but he shut up while he figured it out.
The reader gets that Ike isn’t playing with a full deck, without the author telling you so.
If you think our current politics are unsavory, wait till you get a look at the political rivalries that roiled Tombstone, Arizona, in 1878. Like Wyatt Earp himself, I was clueless about why sheriff Johnny Behan was spreading nasty rumors about Wyatt’s friend, Doc Holliday, until Maria Doria Russell’s historian’s eye shed light on the matter. We’re talking Civil War aftermath, reconstruction resentment, mining moguls, graft, corruption, sheriffs collecting taxes…who knew? It’s all there, in splendid detail. Finally, the gunfight makes sense.
David M. Jessup co-owns Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, where he introduces low-stress, grass-fed cattle raising methods to guests, and guests to the ways of both the old and the new West. A history buff, he is passionate about preserving open space, battling invasive weeds, catching wild river trout on a fly, singing cowboy songs, and telling stories about the American West—some of them true. He and his wife Linda spend part of the year in Maryland exploring the world with their grandchildren.
Mariano’s Crossing, his first novel, was selected as one of three finalists for the Colorado Book Award in literary fiction. He also won first place for mainstream, character-driven fiction in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Contest and was selected as a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Contest and the Santa Fe Writers Project. A prequel, Mariano’s Choice, will be published by Pronghorn Press in September 2016.
Jessup’s blog, Beef, Books and Boots, contains stories of ranch life, articles on sustainable grass-fed beef, and reviews of his favorite books about the American West. Learn more about Jessup and his books at his website. He can also be found on Facebook.
Donna Volkenannt says
Sounds like an interesting book. I agree with the comment that historical fiction suffers when the writer dwells too much on the facts at the expense of story, and conversely to let the fiction run away from the facts. It comes down to a matter of balance, and from reading this review it appears that Epitaph has struck that balance.
I agree, Donna! David’s first novel, Mariano’s Crossing, is a good example of a historical novel well done. You hardly realize you’re learning history because you’re so wrapped up in the story.
Margot Kinberg says
This is, in my opinion, one of the classic stories of the West. It’s captured people’s imaginations for generations, and it’s great to hear that there’s a new take on it. Thanks, both.
Hi Margot!. One of the best Western movies I ever saw was Gunfight at the OK Corral — and that was during high school. Up to then it had been all about Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
Mason Canyon says
This sounds like a fascinating new take on this time honored story. I enjoy westerns and a new way to see the OK Corral is nice.
Pat, thanks for the introduction to both David and Mary’s story.
Thoughts in Progress
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I’ve recently picked up a couple of books on the Oregon Trail too. Nothing fascinates like a take of the West or the American westward migration.
Just watched another version of the OK Corral on tv last week. The old west fascinates my husband to the point he’s probably an amateur historian. I’ll pass David’s book onto my husband. There are never enough westerns as far as he’s concerned. Thanks for visiting IWSG, Patricia. It’s great to meet you.
Hi Joylene — I’ve put Epitaph on my reading list as well. I’ve always loved a good western novel, and when real people and events are part of the story, I’m hooked.