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Mark Twain, the narrator, is jealous of his brother, who has been appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory. The post not only pays, but it provides the opportunity to travel, which is what Twain truly longs for. He manages to convince his brother to bring him along as a personal secretary, and the two set off from St. Joseph, Missouri, on a 20-day trip by stagecoach.
As they leave the eastern states and go deeper into the western territories, Twain marvels at the new land around him. The days are long, but encountering new people and troubles, such as a stagecoach breaking down in Indian territory, makes the days exciting.
The further west they travel, the more dangerous the people and the landscape seem. Twain hears of a man named Slade who is known as a particularly vicious and vindictive man. He is said to have committed his first murder at the age of 26 and has not looked back since. When Twain meets the man himself, he warms to the Slade’s friendly personality, but remembers his reputation.
After entering the territory of Nevada, the brothers spend two days in Salt Lake City. Twain is fascinated with the Mormon religion and buys a copy of the Mormon Bible. Curious about the idea of polygamy, he tries to learn more about this practice. The attempt is unsuccessful, but he does hear about Destroying Angels, which he describes as elders of the Mormon faith whose job it is to make undesirables disappear permanently.
The brothers leave Salt Lake City feeling well rested and begin the last leg of their trip through a desert. Upon reaching Carson City, Twain has just enough time to observe his new surrounds before two men begin to shoot at one another to settle a dispute. Neither man is mortally wounded, but Twain notes that the encounter is a prime example of how people act in the West. The place is a breeding ground for ruthless men and criminals.
Twain soon realizes that there is no work for him as his brother’s secretary and befriends a man from Ohio named Johnny. Together they explore the exotic land of Nevada and find themselves camping on Lake Tahoe. They stay there for weeks, and the trip is only cut short when a fire they build for cooking spreads to the nearby dry grasses and everything around the lake goes up in flames. After a night stranded by the lake, the men are able to return to town after the fire dies out. They vow not to speak of the incident again.
With no work and his retreat at the lake burned, Twain turns to silver mining to pass the time. Spurred on by the success of other mines, he gathers a group of three other fortune hunters. They buy provisions and set out to find a silver mine. They travel for nearly two weeks before finding a spot to build a cabin and start their mining venture. The group begins prospecting under the guidance of Mr. Ballou, the most seasoned miner of their company.
After days without a sign of silver, Mr. Ballou finally finds a promising lead, and the group claims a portion of land to begin mining. But Twain and his fellow miners don’t take in to account the expense of operating a mine and are forced to stop their activities. Twain concludes that buying the land and selling it to those who want to work it seems to be the best way to get rich.
Back in town, Twain sees a group of Indians leaving in a hurry. He inquires where they’re going, and they tell him a flood is coming. Not believing their warning, he goes back to his room at the inn and, hours later, is woken by the foretold flood. He climbs to the roof and is stranded there with the inn’s other residents. They remain there until the water subsides a few days later.
Disillusioned with the dirty, drunk company of the town, Twain, Mr. Ballou and a few other men left town. Their journey nearly ends in their deaths when a severe snowstorm causes them to lose their way. Fortunately they find a stage station where they can recuperate.
The group makes their way to Esmeralda where they resume their hunt for silver. This time, the group waits until another mining company finds a successful lead. Then they lay claim to the plot of land next to the strike. As per the rules of the time, Twain and his companions must do some work on the land in the following 10 days or forfeit their claim.
Twain assumes the others will do the work and thinks nothing of leaving town to take care of a sick friend. By the time he returns to the mine, the 10 days are up, and Twain learns that his comrades didn’t do any work on the land or in the mine. Their fortune is forfeited. The mine turns into a great success, making the new owners millions. Twain is left jaded and poor.
Twain’s next adventure comes in the mail. He is offered the job of editor at the Virginia Daily Territorial Enterprise. He accepts the offer and travels to Virginia City to take up the post. Many people there begin to strike it rich with their mining ventures, and Twain notes that the overabundance of wealth leads the town into all matter of sin. He easily fills the pages of the paper with tales of riches and the ensuing crime. After a successful run as editor, the stability of the job is too much for Twain. He resigns in search of a new adventure.
Once again, the fantasy of striking it rich in a mining venture is too appealing to resist, and Twain heads to San Francisco to follow a lead. As is the trend for him, the renewed efforts to mine fail, and Twain returns to what he knows: writing. He is contracted to travel to the Sandwich Islands, Hawaii, and write a series of letters for the Sacramento Union. On the islands, Twain explores as much as he can. He details all the exotic beauty he sees and learns about the natives and their culture.
Twain spends a year exploring the islands before he returns to San Francisco. Again he finds himself without a job or money. Loathe to return home without some manner of wealth, he sets his mind to coming up with a money-making scheme. He decides to try his hand as a lecturer and is very successful for a time. But the desire to return home strikes him, and he travels back to his state. There, he discovers that people have changed in the last seven years.
Twain recounts a trip to the Holy Land where he met a young man named Jack, who had little knowledge of the Bible. On the trip, a well-educated traveler sets out to educate Jack and talks to him about Moses. On the journey west, Twain spends a Saturday evening singing hymns as it’s the day before the Sabbath.
There are so many missionaries in Hawaii that Twain says it isn’t uncommon for people to just assume that a white person is a preacher. Twain references Sodom and Gomorrah, and Haman being hanged. A passenger on the ship to Hawaii recites the Lord’s Prayer. A character is said to have cried out to God before he is hanged for his crimes.
Twain encounters a number of Mormon families during his journey. He is fascinated by the idea of polygamy and is told a second-hand story of a Mormon man and his large family with over 100 children. Twain jokingly says that the Mormon women are extremely ugly, so the men are doing the world a service by marry them. He buys and reads a copy of the Mormon Bible, noting how ridiculous it is and how it seems to plagiarize the Bible. He quotes a number of passages from the book word for word.
Hawaiian natives believe in a number of gods, and past generations performed human sacrifices in their temples. A common belief is that if an enemy has one of your possessions, he can kneel on the ground, pray over it and cause your death. Though most of the natives claim to be Christians, they still pray to the Great Shark God during troubling times.
Mr. Ballou is a seasoned minor. Twain and his comrades follow him without question. Mr. Ballou’s leads don’t pan out, but the men respect him and his opinion.
The word d–n is used a number of times, and the Lord’s name is taken in vain. It is stated that characters use profanity though the specific words are not used.
Violence is considered to be the law in the western territories, and the area is said to be a breeding ground for criminals. After arriving in Carson City, Twain encounters two men shooting at each other to settle an argument. Neither man is killed, but one is hit by a bullet and leaves the fight bleeding. Physical violence is threatened often and alluded to without details. Twain mentions the notorious Slade who was eventually hung for his crimes. Though violence is rampant, Twain never describes it in gory detail.
The Hawaiians are said to have committed human sacrifices, and mention is made of them participating in cannibalism. In the past, they would bury their children alive when their families became too large.
The Mormons are polygamists, and Twain focuses much time on that fact. The Hawaiians also have more than one partner — though rather than just the men having multiples wives, women can also have multiple husbands.
In Hawaii, Twain watches a group of naked natives swimming and body surfing. After watching the hula, he details how the women were naked and describes the precision with which the ritual dance is performed. He also tells how it is customary, after the death of a royal, for the natives to give in to their vices and passions during the mourning period. He doesn’t detail the specifics, but alludes that they perform sexual acts during this time. Twain jokes that the Hawaiian women respect chastity in other people and that the national pastime of the islands is that of a sexual nature. Men shoot at a rabbit to make it run or “hump himself.”
Guns: Many pages are set aside to detail different guns that Twain and his acquaintances carry. He makes a point of telling how inaccurate the weapons are and how one stagecoach conductor he meets enjoyed shooting at a cow. He couldn’t hit the animal except when it moved in the way of an oncoming bullet. The men also shoot at a rabbit to make it run or “hump himself.”
Racism: Twain talks at length about immigrants from China, referring to them as Chinamen and claiming they only know how to work. A few pages are set aside to describe what he calls Goshoot Indians, whom he calls less savage than “Red Men.” He also uses the n-word to describe black people and refers to the natives in Hawaii as heathens and savages.
Alcohol: Twain and almost every person he meets drink some form of alcohol. The type most often mentioned is whiskey. Many characters get drunk, and Twain makes special mention of one in particular who is famous for rambling on and never answering the question asked of him. A character vows to give up drinking if he survives a near-death experience but is seen drinking the next morning. The natives in Hawaii make an intoxicating drink from awa root.
Smoking: Twain often speaks about smoking with his companions. During a near-death experience, he recognizes smoking as a vice and throws away his pipe, vowing to never smoke again. The next morning, after surviving the night, he finds his pipe and begins smoking.
Gambling: A companion of Twain’s vows to give up gambling if he survives a near-death experience. He goes back on his vow the next day and is seen playing with cards.
Suicide: Twain says he has considered suicide when he was at his lowest point. A man is found after having hung himself in his room.
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