He Began to Die When He Was Twenty-one

Forget every stereotype you may hold about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.  Forget you may not even like “westerns.”  Read Doc, the 2011 historical novel by Mary Doria Russell:  you’ll be richly rewarded.

No need for me to add another in-depth review to the many enthusiastic ones found in the Washington Post, the Washington Times (they agree for a change), and in a dozen other publications and 36  screens worth of reader comments on Amazon.  Instead, in the course of several blog posts, I’ll dissect a few passages that especially intrigue me.

If I love a book, I’ll read it a second time as a writer, asking myself how the author manages to make me cry or laugh or keep turning pages far past my bedtime.  It’s how I hone my own craft.

In Doc, Russel uses the omniscient voice.  That’s where the author is the narrator, the all-knowing guide who dips in and out of different characters’ heads and tells the reader things about them they don’t know about themselves, and who interjects her own opinions about their circumstances, motivations, and the setting in which the story unfolds, present, past and sometimes future.

I’ve never tried writing from this point of view myself—too intimidating.  You have to be cocksure of your ability keep the characters straight in your readers’ heads, and confident that your narrator’s voice is entertaining enough to justify taking the reader on excursions outside of your character’s heads and your main story line.

Here’s an example from Doc.  In the middle of an episode involving Johnnie Sanders, a young Indian-black half breed who’s a whiz at cards and later, the victim of a murder, Russel drops this bit of interpretive history:

Johnnie Sanders’ daddy had told no lies.  The Indians were crazy gamblers.  For numberless centuries and uncounted generation, the Choctaw, the Zuni, the Crow, the Arapahoe, the Navajo, the Dakota, the Mandan, the Kiowa, and a hundred other tribes had whiled away countless days and nights playing a thousand games, betting on anything with an outcome that was not assured.  Blame boredom.  Blame the timeless unrelieved monotony of land so devoid of tress that owls burrow in the ground for want of better accommodation.  Blame vast herds of ceaselessly chewing ruminants who walked with the unsyncopated beat of a Lakota chant.  However you explained it, never and nowhere else on earth had gambling occupied the attention of so many for so long as in this flat and featureless land. 

Then in a geological instant—just five years’ time—the American bison had been replaced on the prairies by European domestic cattle.  Dead red Indians made way for live white bankrupts lured west by the promise of a fresh start on land free for the grabbing.  Kate had watched it happen and felt no pity.  The Indians all but wiped out?  Good riddance.  A danger eliminated, nothing more.  Millions of buffalo rotting on the plains.  Who cares?  They were filthy brutes, huge and stupid.

Neither Johnnie Sanders nor his daddy have any clue about all this; it’s clearly the author speaking.  Does this daring tangent take you out of the flow of the narrative?  It didn’t for me.  I found it nearly as riveting as the story itself, a way of looking a Plains Indians I’d never considered.

But note how, in the second paragraph, Russell brings us back into the head of Kate, Doc Holiday’s partner and lover, so we see the tribes’ decimation through her uncaring eyes.  We’re back into the story again, having enjoyed the brief side trip into history—a well written one at that.

Moral:  If you’re going to use the omniscient voice, make sure your side tracks are compelling and your story train returns to the main track without much delay.

Doc Holliday’s grave in Glenwood Springs, CO.

Next:  Boxing on the frontier

Taos News Reviews Mariano’s Choice

My new historical novel, Mariano’s Choice, got a nice write up in the Oct. 7 Taos News, reviewed by Joan Livingston.  I quote from it below, and the original can be found here:

Mariano’s Choice, by Joan Livingston

Ah, the choices we make. In Mariano Medina’s case, his was to “Run! Get away!” when he witnesses an attack on a girl, the daughter of his patrón. But then he was only 15 and outnumbered by the ruthless men who hunt him down.

Still his inability to stop the attack haunts Mariano into his adulthood.

Author David M. Jessup sets his novel in the first half of the 1800s in the very Wild West. He uses real people for a few of his characters — such as Mariano, who rescued an Army brigade trying to cross Colorado during the winter of 1857 — and then has his way with them.

The novel begins in Taos, where Mariano is a stable boy for a wealthy patrón. During the 15 years following the aforementioned attack, Mariano wanders the frontier, working with trappers and traders. He is skilled at training horses and mules although not as natural as Takánsy, the Indian woman he hires to help him ready a herd for a group of Oregon travelers.

“Charlie Autobees had taught him well during the ten years he hauled whiskey for the man. Had taught him English, too. Given him a tent and blanket. Made him feel part of El Pueblo, that rough little settlement of Americano traders and their Mexican women hunkered on the north bank of the Arkansas, out of reach of Mexican hacienda owners and their sons.”

Mariano encounters good guys, like his buddy, Tim Goodale, and the savvy French trader, Papín, and bad guys, such as the son of his former patrón.

His courage is tested when he risks his life to save Takánsy from a band of Utes. Then there is his return to the Taos area, where he must finally face his past.

It’s been a while since I picked up historical fiction by choice. But Jessup makes his novel work handsomely with a good tempo and an authority that is convincing. He takes readers on a very satisfying ride into the past.

Jessup, a rancher in Colorado, also wrote Mariano’s Crossing. This novel is its prequel.

“Mariano’s Choice,” at 249 pages, is available from Pronghorn Press ( for $19.95 in paperback.

Note:  Mariano’s Choice may also be ordered from regular and online bookstores, and from my website,