The Luck of Roaring Camp

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The story is set in 1850 in Roaring Camp, a mining settlement in California. Cherokee Sal, an Indian prostitute, dies shortly after giving birth to an infant boy. The men in the camp are joined together by a sense of responsibility for the orphan, although the child’s actual father is unknown. The child’s care is supervised by Stumpy, who uses the milk of an ass to feed the baby.

The intrusion of the infant into this rambunctious setting has a civilizing effect on its inhabitants. The greatest change takes place in Kentuck, an impoverished miner who feels a strong affection for the child, now known as Tommy Luck. Soon Roaring Camp and its people take on a new respectability and acquire an unexpected prosperity.

All ends, however, with a freak flood which destroys the settlement. The next morning, the survivors find Kentuck with the dead child in his arms. With a smile, he accompanies the spirit of Tommy Luck into the unknown.

Bret Harte wrote this story for the OVERLAND MONTHLY, the magazine he edited. It pictured the realism of life in a mining camp but did so within a sentimental framework. His characters are stereotypes, and the resolution of the tale is undeniably maudlin. It remained for Twain to turn similar material into great literature.