“The Luck of Roaring Camp,” a short story by American author Brett Harte published in 1868, tells the story of a child born to a declining gold prospecting camp. Believing the child to be good luck, the men of the camp decide to raise him as their own.
The story opens with the labor of Cherokee Sal, the only woman in the camp. It is a particularly difficult labor, but the men remain unenthused by the events happening. The birth proves too much for Sal, and she dies, leaving the boy in the uncertain hands of the miners.
The men decide in the short term to feed him milk from a donkey, the only option they have. This experiment proves to work, and when the child is a month old, he is thriving. The men grow more and more attached to him, and it becomes clear that he will need a name other than “The Kid.” The mother is gone, and the father is unknown. The men decide that he’s brought luck to the camp and that will be his name.
They call him Tommy Luck believing this will start him off right in life, as well as honor his positive presence in the camp. They decide against trying to bring a nurse into camp and continue to raise him as their own. They fashion a crude christening ceremony where Stumpy is named as the godfather; it is the first time the name of God has been mentioned in the camp.
Tommy’s first effect on the camp was in his room. It was cleaned and redecorated, and the men in the habit of hanging around to see how he was doing approved of the change. The rival grocery store then imported carpets and a mirror to keep up. This led to stricter rules about personal appearance and even a man taken to wearing minimal clothing began to show up in town in a clean shirt and freshly bathed.
The shouting and yelling also ceased to give Tommy the chance to rest, as did the cursing. They began to notice all the beautiful things in nature, and frequently set things aside to take to Tommy as a plaything or decoration for his crib.
The men were jealous of their good fortunes. The gold was plentiful, and the camp was clean. They discouraged immigration and protected their borders seriously. Their only contact with the outside world, the expressmen, told stories of the decorations of their camp and their love of an “ingin” baby.
They began to make plans to improve the camp further. However, that winter their fortunes began to change. The snow was deep and more than once the men whispered that the water is what rushed the gold back into the camp and it would return. One night, the melting snow sends a deluge into the town, and in the confusion, the men scatter.
Later, they are warned that a man and a baby lay on the bank of the river. They find Kentuck, the man opposed to clothes but who began wearing them when the baby changed the town, holding Luck. The baby is dead, and Kentuck soon follows him. His last words are to tell everyone that Luck is taking him with him. He dies holding the baby.
Regeneration is a major theme of the story. In the beginning, the camp is poor and unsuccessful. The town’s only woman is a prostitute. She gives birth but does not survive. Things look dreary and unpromising for the new infant. The men step up, however, and the infant survives. He thrives against all the odds, and this has a profound change on the men of the camp. They begin to take pride in their appearance and surroundings and wish to make things better for the young boy. This newfound prosperity causes them to make plans to improve the town even further. They talk about building a hotel, of having people visit. Even the most destitute minors begin to take pride in their appearance and work to change the look of the camp.
The miners’ struggle with nature is ever present in the story. At the time Harte wrote the story, a common theme in literature was the harsh, unforgiving spirit of nature, and how man, in the face of it, cannot do much besides wait out her fury. At the beginning of the story, the camp is suffering immensely. Luck’s birth seems to herald a change in their luck, but this is short lived. Mother nature returns with a fury, destroying the camp and killing the infant along with their hope for the future of the camp.
The story is one of newly found hope, and the awe-inspiring miracle of what having hope can do to even the most hopeless place. It is also a testament to the power of nature to both give and take away.