The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

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How are Roaring Camp's inhabitants described in "The Luck of Roaring Camp"?

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The men of Roaring Camp are initially presented as a rough bunch with quite a bit of tumultuous life experience behind them. Some of them are actual fugitives from justice. The group has plenty of gamblers and a history of shooting each other to death. Some of the men are missing various body parts: fingers, toes, ears. The best shot has only one eye and the strongest man has only three fingers on his right hand. The narrator proclaims that "all were reckless."

The importance of this description lies in the reason the group is gathered in the beginning of the story: they await the birth of a baby. Since there are no children in the town and the baby's mother has committed many "sins" which have brought her to this moment, the childbirth provides multiple reasons that attract men's interests.

"Cherokee Sal" dies shortly after giving birth, and this "reckless" group is left with the task of raising a child. The story shows how a pure and innocent love transforms a group of rough men and brings beauty into their lives. The men go to great lengths to collectively care for this child, and they dote on him in every way they can conceive of.

Thus, the story shows that even "reckless" and tough men are capable of great sacrifice when their hearts are captivated by a great love.

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Harte introduces the men of the camp in a humorous, tongue-in-cheek manner by highlighting the contradictions between their nature or personality and their physical appearances or disabilities. There is a reversal or irony about most of the men. Stumpy, the man chosen to oversee the birth of Cherokee Sal's baby, becomes the midwife of sorts because he has abandoned two families. As a bigamist, he fled to Roaring Camp to avoid legal problems. Many other residents exhibit similar ironies. The man who was the biggest mischief-maker had a "Raphael face," meaning a dignified expression and features. Oakhurst, the gambler, might have been expected to be flamboyant and flashy, but he was as subdued and lost in thought as Hamlet. The bravest man among them was one of the shortest, standing barely more than five feet tall, and he had a soft, shy voice. The strongest man was missing fingers, and the best marksman was one-eyed.  

With these contradictions, Harte sets the stage for a story that revolves around religious parody and reversals of tradition. In this story, the "Savior" is named Luck--turning the traditional idea of predestination and an omniscient God on its head. Rather than the child being presented with gifts by the Magi, Luck receives curious contributions that the rag-tag residents drop in a hat. Of course, the Virgin Birth is replaced by birth to a woman who is far from pure. Instead of a chorus of angels announcing the birth, the men fire their pistols in the air. 

Harte does his best to reverse every expectation in the story, and he sets up the irony with the way he describes the men of the camp at the beginning of the story.

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Paragraph 6 of the story gives details of the characters at the camp:

The assemblage numbered about a hundred men. One or two of these were actual fugitives from justice, some were criminal, and all were reckless. Physically, they exhibited no indication of their past lives and character. The greatest scamp had a Raphael face, with a profusion of blond hair; Oakhurst, a gambler, had the melancholy air and intellectual abstraction of a Hamlet; the coolest and most courageous man was scarcely over five feet in height, with a soft voice and an embarrassed, timid manner. The term “roughs” applied to them was a distinction rather than a definition. Perhaps in the minor details of fingers, toes, ears, etc., the camp may have been deficient, but these slight omissions did not detract from their aggregate force. The strongest man had but three fingers on his right hand; the best shot had but one eye.

There are also some named characters who are introduced at the beginning of the story: Stumpy, the man who adopts the baby (later named Thomas Luck); Kentuck, a "prominent citizen" of the camp; and Cherokee Sal, a "coarse" and "very sinful woman" who is giving birth to baby Luck.

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