Indian Camp


Ernest Hemingway

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Nick Adams, the young protagonist of “Indian Camp,” arrives at a lakeshore with his father and his uncle where they meet several Native Americans. The Native Americans row them across the lake and lead them through the woods until they come to a small shantytown—a Native American encampment—and enter the first building, where a woman is very sick.

Inside the lamp-lit shanty, the mother lies on a bed screaming. She has been in labor for two days. Many of the older women in the village are helping her, while many of the men stay out of earshot of her screams. The father lies on the bunk above her, smoking a pipe and nursing a wound on his foot. The room smells very bad.

Nick’s father is a doctor, and he doesn’t have any anesthetic to ease the woman’s pain. He instructs the older women to boil water and uses the water to sanitize his hands and his equipment. He describes the problem with the birth (the baby is being born in breech, which means bottom-first instead of head-first) and suggests that he might have to operate.

Some time later, Nick’s Father begins the procedure. Uncle George and three male villagers hold the mother down while Nick’s father performs the surgery. The mother bites Uncle George, causing him to call her a “squaw bitch.” Eventually, Nick’s father successfully delivers a baby boy. Throughout the procedure, he enlists Nick’s help and tries to demonstrate his process, but Nick is unable to watch. After the delivery, Uncle George congratulates Nick’s Father for performing the surgery with a jack knife and remarks that Nick’s Father is a great man. Nick’s father announces that he will return in the morning with a nurse.

With the surgery complete, Nick’s Father goes to check on the husband in the top bunk. He finds that the husband has slit his own throat with a razor, the bed pooling with blood. Immediately, Nick’s Father orders Uncle George to take Nick out of the shanty, but it’s too late: he’s already seen the dead man.

Now outside the shanty, with day breaking, Nick’s Father apologizes to his son for bringing him along on this trip. Nick then asks his father a series of questions about what happened in the shanty. Nick’s Father responds to each question with short, deflating answers: normally deliveries are easier; the husband must have killed himself because “he couldn’t stand things;” most people don’t kill themselves; and dying must be “pretty easy.”

As Nick sits back in the boat, his father rowing him away from the camp, the narrator makes observations about the beautiful morning scene at the lake. When the story comes to an end, the narrator notes that Nick, with his father steering, “felt quite sure that he would never die.”