The following review appeared 24 April 1996 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1996.
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Jim McWilliams <email@example.com>
"What would Twain have said?" a character from Brock Thoene's The Legend of Storey County mutters to himself as he tries to think of a particularly apt metaphor to describe how Virginia City "perches" on the side of a mountain (xiv). Similarly, after reading Thoene's novel, I said to myself, "How would Twain describe a narrative with such trite characters and a tedious plot?"
"This won't wash," I finally heard Twain adjudicate in his slow drawl.
The Legend of Storey County opens in September 1938 as a San Francisco journalist (Seth Townsend) settles in to hear the narrative of the oldest man of Virginia City, a mulatto ex-slave named Jim Canfield. Fans of Twain, of course, will immediately recognize this frame structure as one that the master himself frequently employed (e.g., A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and "The Notorious Jumping Frog"), but the structure of The Legend of Storey County is pointless since there is no apparent rationale for it. Unlike in Connecticut Yankee and "Jumping Frog," for example, where the frame provides an opportunity for irony, in this novel the frame is merely expository and could well be eliminated without spoiling the plot or characterizations. In fact, Thoene might as well have written the entire novel from the perspective of the ex-slave since Townsend's point of view is superfluous and detracts from the primary voice of the novel, that of Jim Canfield.
Canfield's narrative itself begins in New Orleans, where he works as a young servant in a bordello before being sold to a man from Flora, Missouri. After being transported to his new home, Canfield spends his adolescence learning how to be a stable hand from Uncle Dimmy, an elderly slave. When his mentor dies in 1856, Canfield, now a young man, decides to escape to freedom. Another young man, an apprentice pilot named Sam, subsequently smuggles him aboard his steamboat and transports him to St. Louis, from where Canfield then travels to Keokuk, Iowa, and his freedom.
Five years later, however, while working in Missouri as a teamster for Union troops, Canfield and Sam meet again as a battle rages around them between Union and Confederate soldiers. After deciding that they have had enough of war, both men then emigrate west with Sam's brother, Orion, who has recently accepted a government appointment in Nevada. The bulk of the novel then describes the adventures of Canfield and Sam as they prospect for silver, encounter Indians and bandits, and try to thwart a Confederate plot to conquer Nevada.
Aside from getting minor facts incorrect (Sam Clemens did not become a cub pilot until 1857), Thoene also distorts an important part of Clemens's biography when he states that Clemens actually found himself in combat during the Civil War. While he certainly did join the Confederate forces, Clemens never fought in a battle, but instead spent his time retreating. As he points out in his autobiographical "The Private History of a Campaign that Failed" (1885), two weeks of army life was enough, even if the closest he ever came to combat was when he and some other recruits shot an unarmed farmer.
Unfortunately, Thoene's novel is rife with such inaccuracies and distortions, which might be forgivable in a better novel, but are deadly in such a boring one. Since I could not enjoy the characters and plot, I found myself instead hoping for many allusions to Clemens and to his works that could function as inside jokes. These allusions, however, are far too few, and so often inaccurate, that reading The Legend of Storey County quickly became a chore instead of a rewarding treasure hunt. In short, Thoene's novel is no Roughing It.