The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Throughout “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” the reader is presented with a duality of circumstance that pervades the story. The river, for example, both provides a welcome physical border for the little town and becomes a violent force that takes away the lives of several townspeople. Through various pieces of textual evidence, it is clear that life’s circumstances are complex.

The language utilized in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is a mix of endearing colloquialisms and broad grandeur. Kentuck affectionately refers to the new baby as a “d—d little cuss,” and, in describing him, the group says he “ain’t bigger nor a derringer.” However:

“Tommy” was christened as seriously as he would have been under a Christian roof, and cried and was comforted in as orthodox fashion.

It is also noted that

there was a rude attempt to decorate this bower with flowers and sweet-smelling shrubs, and generally some one would bring him a cluster of wild honeysuckles, azaleas, or the painted blossoms of Las Mariposas.

The language brings a complexity to the characters of the town, avoiding letting them stand as two-dimensional stereotypes on the page. They are both rough and compassionate; they are simultaneously amoral and endearing.

The complexities of nature are seen in the story. When the baby is born, the narrator notes that nature becomes the child’s playmate:

For him she would let slip between the leaves golden shafts of sunlight that fell just within his grasp; she would send wandering breezes to visit him with the balm of bay and resinous gums; to him the tall red-woods nodded familiarly and sleepily, the bumble-bees buzzed, and the rooks cawed a slumbrous accompaniment.

The men note in astonishment that it seems that the child talks to the birds and chatters with the squirrels. Indeed, Mother Nature seems to take on a nurturing role in the child’s life (which is lacking in female tenderness otherwise). And then, ultimately, Mother Nature takes the child away. A snow blankets the Sierras, and a “tumultuous watercourse” descends the hills which border the town—flooding the river and sweeping away the house Stumpy and the boy lived in.

Although Kentuck makes valiant efforts to save the child, they both die in the end. Humanity is presented as helpless against the forces of nature. Nature is neither all beauty nor all deadliness; like the characters, it is a complex mixture of both.

Cherokee Sal is a complex character central to the story. She is the town’s lone female inhabitant, probably a sex worker, and though it is noted that she is “a coarse and . . . sinful woman,” the men pity her position of laboring alone when “she most needed the ministration of her own sex.” Her sufferings bring the town to a standstill as they await news of her delivery, and a few are “touched by her sufferings.”

She brings a novelty to Roaring Camp: birth. It is noted that people only leave this little town, not enter it. No man claims paternity of her child, but they collectively join forces to raise him. They honor her child by both bringing him expensive gifts and immediately committing themselves to care for him.

After her death, Cherokee Sal is given “such rude sepulture as Roaring Camp afforded.” Although their actions in her life likely did not honor her, the men honor Cherokee Sal’s memory through devotion to her son. Cherokee Sal is both the woman they use to fulfill their sexual desires and the mother of the child they grow to adore.

Even the very name of the child indicates the duality of...

(This entire section contains 706 words.)

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meaning that runs throughout the short story. “The Luck” (the boy) is so named because the men declare that the baby has brought luck to their town. And yet, he is quite unlucky in the end: brought to his untimely death by an overflowing river that sweeps him away.

Even the efforts of Kentuck to desperately save him are not enough, and his life ends much too soon. The baby is both lucky in his situation of finding a group of men committed to caring for him following his mother’s death and unlucky in the situation that ends his life.

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