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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte
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Describe the setting in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat."

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The classic short story "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" by Bret Harte tells of four people who are exiled from the town of Poker Flat because of their supposed immorality. On their journey to safety they meet a sweet eloping couple, and they all take refuge together in...

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The classic short story "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" by Bret Harte tells of four people who are exiled from the town of Poker Flat because of their supposed immorality. On their journey to safety they meet a sweet eloping couple, and they all take refuge together in an abandoned cabin in the face of a fierce snowstorm.

The historical time period is given at the beginning of the tale as November 1850. The town of Poker Flat is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northeastern California.

The story describes Poker Flat as lying in the foothills where the temperature is more temperate. The travelers must make their way up and over a "narrow and difficult" trail to the far side of the mountains. The air is dry and cold. Before they reach the cabin, they arrive at a spot with a beautiful vista. This is where they meet Tom Simmons and Piney Woods, the runaway lovers.

The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently towards the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley.

The cabin where the group takes shelter is described as "a rude attempt at a log house near the trail." Since the cabin doesn't have a roof, they thatch it with pine boughs. Inside they build a blazing fire to mitigate the outside cold. Most of the rest of the story takes place in this desolate snowbound setting, either within the cabin or in the forest just outside it.

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"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is set in a typical Western town that sprang up during the Gold Rush of 1849.  Physically, Bret Harte describes "the red dust of Poker Flat" that Mr. Oakhurst wipes from his boots.  There are also are mentions of gulches and a steep mountain range (the Sierra Madres) that the group of outcasts must travel through to get to the next settlement, Sandy Bar.

Besides the physical setting that is described, Harte also mentions that Poker Flat is "a settlement unused to Sabbath influences," meaning it is a lawless town that is used to having the types of people which it outcasts: gamblers, prostitutes, thieves and drunks.  However, as the story begins, Harte mentions that because of some recent crimes, there has recently been "a change in its moral atmosphere."  They cast out Mr. Oakhurst and the rest in hopes of changing the reputation of this typical Western town.

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