Many of you probably had the "Daddy, where do babies come from?" talk at some point during your childhoods, but we're guessing that less of you had the "Daddy, why do people kill themselves?" talk. Morbid? Well that's the turn that an attempted parental life-lesson takes in Ernest Hemingway's short story "Indian Camp." "Indian Camp" was part of Hemingway's very first collection of stories, In Our Time, which was published in 1925 when he was only 26 years old. If that doesn't already make you feel like an under-achiever, then you certainly will after you read the story.
When we say that it's a short story, we mean short story. "Indian Camp" is only about five pages long, but that's not why you should read it. A lot happens in five pages. A young boy named Nick witnesses his first birth and his first death, all in the same night, and in the process he gains a new view of his father and indelibly leaves childhood behind. That's one heck of a night in a person's life.
But it's not just any person. "Indian Camp" is the first real story from In Our Time (it's preceded by two vignettes) and, more importantly, it is the very first of what became known as the Nick Adams stories, featuring the same character—Nick Adams—at various stages of his life. Other Nick Adams stories include "Big Two-Hearted River," and "The Killers." In fact, most of the stories in In Our Time are Nick Adams stories, and he appears again and again throughout Hemingway's career. If you like Hemingway, you're going to get to know Nick Adams pretty well. So why not start at the very beginning?
Why Should I Care?
You might say that "Indian Camp" is where it all begins, and by "it" we mean not only the Nick Adams saga, but also Hemingway's entire career. Many of the themes that are so central to Hemingway's most famous works—novels like A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises—appear in "Indian Camp," such as masculinity and suicide. But we also see Hemingway's characteristic writing style, which has become something of a staple for any aspiring writer who wants to learn how to do the old show-not-tell trick.
"Indian Camp" is really Hemingway getting his feet wet in the literary world, so to speak. We may know him more as "Papa," one of those Great American Novelists who hangs out with stars like Marlene Dietrich when he's not busy being a wartime ambulance driver or hunting lions in Africa. Because he's such a literary titan, we think less often of Hemingway as a young man, of Hemingway before he was fully-fledged. "Indian Camp" gives us some insight into this Hemingway and, in doing so, shows us that he hit the ground running.