Ernest Hemingway

Indian Camp

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Indian Camp Summary

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“Indian Camp” is a short story by the American author Ernest Hemingway, first published in 1924 in the Transatlantic Review, and later included in Hemingway’s 1925 collection In Our Time. “Indian Camp,” one of the author’s earliest stories, marks the first appearance of the character Nick Adams, the protagonist of many of Hemingway’s more autobiographical fictions. In “Indian Camp,” Adams is a young boy, accompanying his doctor father on a mission to save the life of an Indian woman by conducting an emergency Caesarean section. The events of the story, according to Hemingway, are not autobiographical, but he may have been inspired by the birth of his son. A few months before the story was written, Hemingway’s wife Hadley went into labor while the author was on a train, and he feared he would not reach her side in time to be with her during the experience. Fond of “Indian Camp,” feeling that the story had “pretty good unity,” Hemingway also included it in two further collections: The Fifth Column and The First Forty-Nine Stories.

The story opens as Nick and his father arrive at the shore of a lake. Accompanying them is Nick’s Uncle George. They are met by a pair of Indians, who row them across the lake in two separate canoes—Nick and his father in one, George in the other. Nick asks his father where they are going and his father explains that they are going to the Indian camp because “There is an Indian lady very sick.”

On the far shore, Uncle George lights a cigar and gives cigars to the two Indians. They proceed through a meadow and a wood to the logging road. Nick notes that it is lighter on the logging road because all the trees have been felled.

At the next bend, they find the “shanties where the Indian bark-peelers” live. Nick, his father, and George enter one of these shanties, where they find an Indian woman who has been in painful labor for two days. She is lying in the bottom bunk of a bunk bed. Her husband is in the top bunk: he, too, is in pain, having cut his foot badly with an ax.

The woman screams, and Nick’s father explains to Nick that she is in pain because “All her muscles are trying to get the baby born.” Nick asks whether his father can give her something “to make her stop screaming,” but his father replies that he doesn’t have any anesthetic, and besides, “Her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they’re not important.”

Nick’s father boils his medical instruments in the Indians’ kettle and washes his hands with soap. As he does so, he explains to Nick that babies are usually born head first, but when they aren’t, it can cause problems. Nick is present when his father operates, but he finds he cannot watch. Several men have to hold the woman down during the operation. She bites Uncle George, who calls her a “Damn squaw bitch!” Nick’s father invites Nick to watch him put stitches in the incision, but Nick doesn’t want to.

After the operation, Nick’s father offers to put peroxide on George’s bite and tells the Indians that a nurse will arrive the next day. He is as “exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game.”

He suggests taking a look at the father: “They’re usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs.” When Nick’s father pulls back the blanket on the top bunk, Nick sees that the man has cut his own throat.

Nick and his father leave the camp at daybreak. Nick’s father is no longer exhilarated by his achievement, and he apologizes to Nick for putting him through an “awful mess.”

Nick asks if giving birth is always that hard. His father says no. Nick asks why the Indian man killed himself, and his father supposes, “He couldn’t stand things, I guess.” Nick asks if many men kill themselves. His father says no. Nick asks the same question about women and again his father says no. Next, Nick asks where Uncle George has gone and his father replies, “He’ll turn up all right.” Finally, Nick asks his father if dying is hard. “No, I think it’s pretty easy, Nick. It all depends.”

By now they are in the boat, and Nick’s father is rowing them back across. Nick trails his hand in the water and feels sure he will never die.

“Indian Camp” explores Hemingway’s recurring themes of masculinity and death. Some readers have seen the story as a miniature allegory of colonialism in the United States, while others have seen the twinned horrors of childbirth and suicide as its central preoccupation. “Indian Camp” is enigmatic, in part because it is written in the sparse, deceptively simple style for which Hemingway would become famous, and which has influenced generations of American writers.