Epitaph is a very different story from Mary Doria Russell’s best-known work, the science fiction novel The Sparrow. Set in Tombstone, Arizona, in the late 1800s, this story explores the events leading up to and following the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
As with most major historical events, the causes of the gunfight were more varied and subtle than is widely appreciated. Russell does an excellent job of laying out those causes and surrounding them with an engaging story. The characterization here is also strong. Russell shows notorious figures like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday as they probably actually were: real people with both virtues and flaws.
One of the intriguing things about this book is the way it highlights similarities between the time period it’s written about and the modern day. Political party rivalries underlay the more personal disagreements between the Earps/Holliday and the Clantons/McLaurys, and the underpinnings of that polarization largely had to do with the balance of power between the federal government and the states. And while we tend to think of gun control as a modern issue, a city ordinance in Tombstone that prohibited the carrying of guns within city limits played a role in the escalating tensions.
Although Wyatt was the most famous Earp, his brothers Virgil, Morgan, and (to a lesser extent) James were all involved in the events of the story. The one complaint I had with Epitaph is that it didn’t distinguish Morgan and Virgil from each other as well as I would have liked, and sometimes I forgot which brother had done or said a particular thing.
The Sparrow established Russell as a highly capable science fiction writer, but with her new book, she demonstrates a talent for historical fiction as well. This intricate, informative, and engaging novel is definitely worth a read.