“Big Two-Hearted River” is one of the best stories by one of the greatest short-story writers of the twentieth century. “The story was about coming back from the war,” as Ernest Hemingway later explained in A Moveable Feast (1964), “but there was no mention of the war in it.” Unless the reader knows In Our Time (1924, 1925), Hemingway’s first collection of short stories, “Big Two-Hearted River” will not make complete sense. The first five stories in that collection describe the young Nick Adams growing up in and around the northern Michigan woods, while the middle stories (and most of the interchapters that preface every story in the collection) concern Americans in Europe during and immediately following World War I. “Big Two-Hearted River” concludes the book and brings Nick Adams back from the wounds and trauma of war to the regenerative natural setting of woods and water, where, as a boy, he first learned about the world. “Big Two-Hearted River” is a boy’s adventure of camping and fishing, but it is finally a story of a man’s healing.
The story is broken into two parts (in In Our Time, they appear as separate stories in the table of contents and are divided by a brief interchapter), but there is very little plot in either. Part 1 opens as “The train went on up the track out of sight, around one of the hills of burnt timber.” This is Nick’s last contact (except in his thoughts) with other humans. Nick has been dropped off in what remains of Seney, a once thriving lumber town that has been deserted and burned over and now resembles (although Nick does not say so) the war zone that he has so recently left. “Even the surface had been burned off the ground.”
At a bridge across the river, Nick looks down on “the trout keeping themselves steady in the current with wavering fins.” Like the...
(The entire section is 768 words.)