The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

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Who is Cherokee Sal in "The Luck of Roaring Camp", and what makes her unique?

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In "The Luck of Roaring Camp," Cherokee Sal is a minor character whose role is to help get the story started, but she does so at great cost. Though we learn nothing about her interior life, we do learn from the men's perspective that she is a "coarse" woman with a "sinful" past. After giving birth to an illegitimate child, Sal also dies and cleanses the town of sin. The men then decide they will not allow any more women in the camp because they can take care of the child without one—though it seems likely that without Cherokee Sal's mothering skills, Stumpy and his donkey might not have been able to raise the boy.

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We don't learn much about Cherokee Sal, though she is unique to the Roaring Camp. She is unique because she is the only woman living there among more than a hundred men, and, in addition, she has a baby—something unprecedented in the life of the camp.

Unfortunately, however, given how...

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central she is, she never gets to speak, and we only get the sparsest outline of her physical appearance or interior self. All we learn is that she is "coarse" and "very sinful."

The story is told from the male point of view, and we have to take the male narrator's word about Sal. When she dies after giving birth, the narrator states that the town has been cleansed:

Within an hour she had climbed, as it were, that rugged road that led to the stars, and so passed out of Roaring Camp, its sin and shame, forever.

This is, to put it mildly, a highly misogynist view of Cherokee Sal. She, alone, was the source of sin and shame? Not likely.

However, with Cherokee Sal conveniently out of the way—we are told she is not much mourned—the men decide not to allow another woman into the camp. Stumpy and his ass will raise the boy themselves, and that apparently is fine. Who needs a woman when you have an ass? As Stumpy states:

"Me and that ass," he would say, "has been father and mother to him!"

Cherokee Sal is treated as little more than a plot device that gets the story going so the men can take over. But could it be that without a woman to care for the child their luck runs out?

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The famous short story "The Luck of Roaring Camp" by Bret Harte tells of how a town of rough and rugged gold hunters in a remote location is transformed by the birth of a baby. Cherokee Sal is unique to the town for two reasons. First of all, she is the only woman in a town full of 100 rowdy men. Secondly, she is the mother of the baby, Tommy Luck, who becomes known as the Luck of Roaring Camp.

When the story opens, Cherokee Sal has gone into labor, and nobody in the camp really knows what to do. The implication is that Cherokee Sal is a prostitute.

Perhaps the less said of her the better. She was a coarse, and it is to be feared, a very sinful woman. But at that time, she was the only woman in Roaring Camp, and was just then lying in sore extremity, when she most needed the ministration of her own sex.

In the absence of another woman to act as midwife, the men appoint a man named Stumpy to oversee the birth. Cherokee Sal dies shortly after giving birth, but the baby lives and is adopted by the camp.

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In the second paragraph of the story, Bret Harte mentions Cherokee Sal: "She was a coarse, and, it is to be feared, a very sinful woman. But at that time she was the only woman in Roaring Camp." The most important statement is the last, that she was the only woman in the camp. This camp was a mining camp, and those tended to be largely male in population. But, Harte also tells the reader that Cherokee Sal was a "sinful woman," which the reader can infer means that she was a prostitute, a lucrative position for a woman in a predominately male town. And Harte does state that hers was "a name familiar enough in the camp."

Cherokee Sal is also important because she gives birth to the character for whom the story is named, the baby "Luck." Some of the coarsest characters in the story become enamored with the baby and see him as a sort of good luck charm for them.

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