“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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...
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