Doc by Mary Doria Russell

He could not accept that Fortuna might smile on him for half of his short life, only to watch pitilessly while his lungs gave out, leaving him to suffocate slowly. He refused to bow before a Providence determined to deliver him to an unmarked pauper’s grave in Colorado, fifteen hundred miles from the home he would never see again.
John Henry Holliday believed in science, in rationality and in free will. He believed in study, in the methodical acquisition and accumulation of useful skills. He believed that he could homestead his future with planning and preparation; sending scouts ahead and settling it with pioneering effort. Above all, he believed in practice, which increased predictability and reduced the element of chance in any situation.
The very word made him feel calm. Piano practice. Dental practice. Pistol practice, poker practice. Practice was power. Practice was authority over his own destiny.
Luck? That was what fools called ignorance and laziness and despair when they gave themselves up to the turn of a card, and lost, and lost, and lost . . .

Ah, yes, Invictus. “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” I don’t believe it, and it doesn’t really seem to have worked too well for Doc Holliday, the central character in Mary Doria Russell’s novel, Doc, either. Doc Holliday, as portrayed in Ms. Russell’s story, was more than a bloodthirsty dentist, gambler, and gunfighter who “shot’em up” at the OK Corral and died at the tender age of 36. In this book, Doc is a philosopher and a pianist and a lover of beauty and a homesick soul. Holliday’s tragedy was that he struggled with tuberculosis, the same disease that killed his mother when John Henry Holliday was only 15 years old. At the time many people who were diagnosed with TB moved to drier climate of the American Southwest because it was believed that the dry air was curative or at least palliative for those suffering from the deadly disease. Holiday left his home and family in Atlanta, Georgia and moved first to Dallas, Texas, then to Dodge City, Kansas, and then to Tombstone, Arizona where the famous gunfight took place—with many stops and detours in between.

The events of this book take place mostly during Holliday’s time in Dodge, and Russell’s Doc seems to be the same man that Wyatt Earp, his friend, once described in a newspaper article, “Doc was a dentist, not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean, ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun that I ever knew.” (Wikipedia, Doc Holliday)

Wikipedia, by the way, lists nine other novels based on the life and times of Doc Holliday. He’s a popular subject, I guess. I found this particular take on this infamous historical character to be fascinating. Warning: the dialog does include some, not much but some, profanity and crude language–which I thought was unnecessary and distracting.

As for the philosophical question that Doc debates with himself in the quotation above, I would argue that neither self-determination nor luck is the key to one’s destiny or future. God is in control, and we have choices within His created order. We can certainly “refuse to bow” or give ourselves up to despair—or we can trust His love and His grace and work within His providence to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Thank God it’s not all up to me and my practice and self-control, and thank God His grace is abundant and free, even when I don’t understand His plan.

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