Bret Harte's short story "Luck of Roaring Camp" manages to be tragic without tipping into melodrama, and rustic without tripping over its local color. It's a balancing act between the potentially hoary plot of a newborn baby's effect on an all-male, wildly uncouth mining community, and Harte's method of seeing "hidden humanity among the sordid." His style and sympathies allow us to keep our distance but still shed a tear at the story's end.
A Stock Situation Made Realistic
Harte's skill as a storyteller lies in his ability to take a stock situation and make it realistic -- comic, ironic, poignant. His characters might have been cliches: testosterone-soaked pioneers with secret hearts of gold, reformed by love and infant care. Instead, Hart makes them comically practical -- they feed the newborn asses' milk, his mother having died in childbirth; they raise an emolument for his future out of stolen goods; they christen him in an ironically "ludicrous" ceremony where "nobody laughed." Even naming the baby "Luck" avoids melodrama in favor of poignancy; the men are superstitious gamblers.
Diction and Syntax, Formal and Rustic
Hart's stylistic diction contributes to the balancing act. His tone is distant, which somehow intensifies the relationship of "Luck" and his mentor Kentuck. Syntax balances the colloquial and formal: Kentuck endearingly repeats "D---d little cuss" in speaking of the child, while Hart's hyperbole gives both grace and Paul Bunyan-like grandeur to Roaring Camp's citizens: "the strongest man had but three fingers ... the best shot had but one eye." The baby's mother, the prostitute Cherokee Sal, is not buried; she has "such rude sepulchre as Roaring Camp could afford." And Roaring Camp undergoes, not reform, but "regeneration."
Allusion and Irony
Hart infuses his tale with classical allusions and ironic touches. Roaring Camp is set between California's Sierra hills and a river, a "city of the plain" not unlike Sodom of Genesis; its citizenry, all prospectors and rogues, is reformed to a man, like Ninevah under Jonah. A flood engulfs both the "Luck" and Kentuck, sending them like Argonauts into "the unknown sea" -- Kentuck, like Aeneas, braves the flood to preserve the child's body. His heroism and final exaltation -- "I've got the Luck with me now" -- are ironic, since he did it all for a "d----d little cuss."
It Takes a Village
Harte's "Luck" is an Indian child, and yet not a whiff of Caucasian prejudice invades the text. Harte's theme, that a village raises a child, is free of racial melodrama; Harte himself was an advocate for minorities. We can weep without guilt or reservation at the babe's death and Kentuck's sacrifice; we realize, as Harte does, that the "Luck" is also our child, part of our universal community.
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.