Book of the Week: Epitaph – Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell is, for me, one of those dream novelists who seems able to do just about anything. Her debut, The Sparrow, quickly became a favorite bookseller handsell and remains a beloved bestseller. (At my store we lovingly sold it as “Jesuits in space.”) Along with its sequel, The Children of God, she used the “first contact” sci fi conceit as an unexpectedly powerful way to consider philosophy, religion, faith and our humanity.

Three historical novels followed: A Thread of Grace, a WWII story that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Dreamers of the Day, a novel about the creation of the modern Middle East and Doc, nominally a western about the friendship between Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. I thought “a western” might be a bridge to far for me. But like her previous novels it was an immersive experience–rich in detail and using a specific historical scenario to draw readers into a compelling story of human experience. As she said herself of the book, “It’s about vice, bigotry, violence, and living with a terminal disease.”

This new book is her first with our Ecco imprint and I couldn’t be happier than to be selling it. Epitaph returns to the story of Wyatt Earp; it’s an electric tale that—like all her books—is much bigger than the bones of the plot it hangs on. She hints at this when she says, “What happened in Tombstone forms the basis of an American Iliad.” We see the events at the O.K. Corral and Wyatt’s subsequent journey from the perspective of his common-law wife, Josephine Marcus—Earp’s Helen. It’s a deeply researched deconstruction of the myth yet it feels surprisingly contemporary: A story of police violence, an armed “stand your ground” citizenry, the corrupt relationship between politics and big business, a locked congress and a polarizing president. At the end of the day it’s also very much about our fascination with celebrity, which may well be as old as Homer.

That this is an Indie Next Pick should be no surprise since Russell has long been a bookseller favorite with a deservedly devoted following.

Russell shifts her focus to Wyatt Earp, the ambivalent, morally ambiguous not-quite-hero of this Western Iliad…. The novel shifts effortlessly between intimate focus…and a wide angle that captures President James Garfield’s assassination as well as the history of silver mining. The volatile mix of money, politics and personal vengeance intensifies in the months leading to the famous shootout and its less famous but brutal aftermath during which Wyatt loses his moral center. Eventually the novel becomes less violent but sadder and more realistic as Wyatt turns into a sullied victor on an odyssey toward Josie and pop-culture immortality.

Despite all that has been written and filmed about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, Russell’s pointedly anti-epic anti-romance is so epic and romantic that it whets the reader’s appetite for more.”
— Kirkus Reviews

“In this follow-up to Doc, Russell is on a mission: she will leave no stone unturned, no seemingly tangential character undeveloped, no political maneuver unexamined in order to chip away at the pristine image of Wyatt Earp, Western Law Man. Unlike Earp’s Vendetta Ride, though, her motivation is not vindictive; instead, she uses what must have been a staggering amount of research for something nobler. She wants to reveal truth where it has been obfuscated for more than a century….Russell shows how the gunfight at the OK Corral is not the end of a hero’s tale but just 30 terrible seconds in a decades-long, nationwide struggle to evolve out of ignorance into enlightenment.”
— Library Journal (starred review)

“Whether this book is Greek tragedy in the guise of a western or vice versa, this is truly one the best books I’ve read over the last year. All the terms you learn about Greek tragedy (dramatic irony, hubris, etc.) come into play. And while the plot is epic, the players are all too human. Wyatt is ignorant and impulsive. Doc is weak and at times frightened. Whether you read/like westerns or not, definitely get your hands on this book.”
—  Peter Simcoe, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Crestview Hills, KY

“Russell brings the true history of the O.K. Corral and Tombstone, Arizona to life in blazingly, compulsively readable prose.  All the characters you think you know so well from films are created as fully-fleshed characters with flaws and all, making the big showdown into an event that is emotionally powerful as well as exciting….This is easily the best book I have read in ages, and I cannot wait to recommend it to customers!  What a powerful, beautiful novel.”
—  Bill Carl, The Booksellers on Fountain Square, Cincinnati, OH

Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral (9780062198761) by Mary Doria Russell. $27.99 hardcover. 3/3/15 on sale.

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