The Luck Of Roaring Camp by Bret Harte, 1868
The magic trick:
Using the same topic first for humor and then heartbreak
If you are a child of the 1980s like me, you may remember this plot from such cinema classics as “Three Men And A Baby,” or television gems like “Full House.” There’s nothing funnier than a bunch of dude bros suddenly forced into the (air quotes) women’s work of caring for a baby.
Well, “Roaring Camp” mines (pun, as always, intended) the same ground for quite a few laughs early in the story. Where it’s different – and yes, it does turn out to be slightly better than “Three Men And A Baby” – is the turn it takes in the story’s second half. It seamlessly transitions from lighthearted and comical to heartfelt and tragic; no simple feat. What previously was a funny odd couple in the man, Kentuck, and the baby, Luck, now appears to represent the essence of human love. It’s incredibly sweet. And that’s quite a trick on Harte’s part.
As Kentuck bent over the candle-box half curiously, the child turned, and, in a spasm of pain, caught at his groping finger, and held it fast for a moment. Kentuck looked foolish and embarrassed. Something like a blush tried to assert itself in his weather-beaten cheek. “The damned little cuss!” he said, as he extricated his finger, with perhaps more tenderness and care than he might have been deemed capable of showing. He held that finger a little apart from its fellows as he went out, and examined it curiously. The examination provoked the same original remark in regard to the child. In fact, he seemed to enjoy repeating it. “He rastled with my finger,” he remarked to Tipton, holding up the member, “the damned little cuss!”
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…And the other ‘magic trick’ here is the fact that you, as a self-confessed “child of the 1980s, can actually value such an old fashioned quality as sentiment-in-fiction (you call this story’s emotion “incredibly sweet”) in this old fashioned writer. I knew him mainly for rowdy western stories about the building of the railroad. Thanks for expanding awareness and sensitivity, and shining a light on what the sharpest modern writers have in common with the most musty ol’ names from a past century.