Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 691

“Indian Camp” is a story of initiation in which young Nick Adams accompanies his father, a physician, on a call to an Indian camp, where the father delivers a baby by cesarean section using only his jackknife. The violence and pain of the birth contrast sharply with the ease of the suicide of the pregnant woman’s husband, brought on by her screams, and introduce Nick to the realities of birth and death.

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The story begins in the dark, before sunrise, as Nick, his father, and Uncle George are rowed across the lake by some Indian men. Nick’s father explains that they are going to the camp to treat an “Indian lady who is very sick.” The trio follow an Indian with a lantern through the dewy grass. Their way becomes easier and lighter when they are able to walk on the logging road that cuts through the woods, and eventually they are greeted by the dogs that live at the edge of the shantytown occupied by the Indian bark-peelers. The lighted window and the woman holding a light at the doorway of the nearest hut direct the two men and the boy to the woman in labor.

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Inside on a wooden bunk lies the pregnant woman, who has been in labor for two days and who cannot deliver despite the help of the other women in the camp. The woman screams as the men enter. The interior of the hut is sketchily described, except for the bunk beds, the lower berth of which is filled by the woman and the upper berth of which holds her husband, who hurt his foot with an ax three days before. The room smells very bad.

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Latest answer posted August 31, 2014, 7:32 pm (UTC)

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Nick’s father goes into action, demanding hot water and trying to tell Nick that the woman is going to have a baby. His condensed but rather technical explanation is interrupted by the woman’s scream and by Nick’s asking if his father can give her something for the pain. His father explains that the screams are not important and that he does not hear them. The husband in the top bunk turns over to face the wall. While scrubbing up, Nick’s father explains to Nick that he will have to operate. With Uncle George and three of the Indian men holding her down, Doctor Adams performs a cesarean section, without an anesthetic, using his sterilized pocket knife. The woman bites Uncle George, who calls her a “damn squaw bitch.” Nick holds the basin for his father during the operation, which takes a long time.

The arrival of the baby breaks the tension, and Doctor Adams asks Nick how he likes being an intern. Nick turns away so as not to see his father removing the cord or sewing up the incision. The doctor assures the woman, now quiet and pale, that the nurse will drop by the next day and bring all that she needs. Exhilarated after the operation, like a football player in the locker room after a game, Doctor Adams brags that this has been one for the medical journals, using a jackknife and tapered gut leaders.

Brought back to his duties, the doctor looks at the father in the top bunk only to find that in the quietness he has cut his own throat with a razor. Although Nick’s father orders George to take Nick out of the hut, it is too late because Nick has already seen the man and the pool of blood.

On their way back to the lake, his postoperative exhilaration gone, Nick’s father apologizes for bringing him along. Nick, however, is full of questions, about childbirth, about the woman’s husband, about death. Back on the lake, Nick’s father rows in the early morning chill. Nick, sitting now in the bow of the boat, trails his hand in the water, which feels warm in the cool of the air. A bass jumps and makes a circle in the water. In the early morning on the lake sitting in the boat while his father rows, Nick feels quite sure that he will never die.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

“Indian Camp” was written by Hemingway in the early 1920s and first appeared in the April, 1924, issue of the literary journal Transatlantic. It is one of his best-known short works, and this is partly due to its being the first in a series of the Nick Adams tales. It initiates a sequence of stories that follows Nick from boyhood through his combat experience in World War I and into his post-war disillusionment as a wounded veteran trying to adjust to normal, civil society. The autobiographical parallels between Nick and Hemingway are manifold. Here the story is told through the experience of Nick as a boy who lives with his physician father in a remote region of northern Michigan.

The story begins at the break of dawn as Nick, his father, and his Uncle George are rowed across a lake by some local Indians. They are on an emergency medical call, for a pregnant Indian woman is in the midst of a very difficult birth. They arrive at the camp, actually a kind of shantytown, and a woman in one of its huts beckons them toward their destination. Inside a pregnant Indian woman lies in agony on the lower berth of a bunk bed. She screams with pain and terror when the three outsiders enter the squalid abode. Despite two days of excruciating labor, the woman has not been able to deliver her child, and the local midwives are at a loss to help her. The Indian woman’s husband lies wounded in the upper berth of the bunk bed, having suffered an accidental axe wound.

Nick’s father explains the situation to him, and when the boy suggests that he give the woman something to ease her pain, the elder Adams says that her screams are not important and that he pays no attention to them. Nick’s father washes his hands in hot water, and tells his son that he must perform an operation. Using his sterilized pocket knife, the doctor intends to deliver the infant by cesarean section. Uncle George and some Indian men hold the woman steady, while Nick holds a basin. Although the lack of any pain-killing medicine causes the patient to bite Uncle George, the operation is a success, and Nick’s father commends him for serving as an “intern.” The physician is exceedingly pleased by his own performance given the primitive “instruments” that he had at hand, calling it “one” for the medical journals.

He then turns to the father of the newborn and his wound. He is shocked to discover that the pregnant woman’s husband has slit his own throat with a razor. Doctor Adams tries to hide this gruesome death from Nick, but the boy has already seen the man lying in a pool of his blood. Along with Uncle George, Nick and his father return across the lake. The doctor apologizes to Nick for bringing him on this unexpectedly tragic mission. But Nick is more curious than horrified. He asks questions about childbirth, sickness and death. Nick lets his hand trail through the water, and watches a bass make circles on its surface. He is secure in the feeling that he will never die.

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