Thoene, Brock. _The Legend of Storey County: A Novel_. Nashville:
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995. Pp. xvi + 238. Cloth, 5-3/4"
x 8-1/2". $16.99. ISBN 0-7852-8070-7.
Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Jim McWilliams <[log in to unmask]>
Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996. This review may not be published
or redistributed in any medium without permission.
"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
"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,
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
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_.