Oh yeah, things are definitely tense in "Indian Camp." Parental demands, harrowing births, previously-unknown communities—and that's just the first half of the story. We get the sense that Nick can think of a hundred other ways he'd rather be spending his time than watching a Caesarian operation (or more like trying not to watch it), and that he doesn't really like seeing the hard-hearted side of his father.
The second half is when all the tension of the first half finally boils over, and what we're left with are the sobering remains of what was supposed to be just another Bring-Your-Kid-to-Work Day. To clarify, sobering in this case refers to the realization that what we thought was happening is in fact not at all what was happening, which is exactly the case for "Indian Camp." While everyone was all caught up in the birth, the suicide happening in the bunk above slipped in unnoticed. This realization comes with its own set of emotional consequences—defeat, dejection, anxiety—as often happens when we realize that things aren't as they seem.
Hey, coming of age doesn't just happen all at once. It's more of a growing process. Eh? Anybody? Anybody?
"Indian Camp" screams coming-of-age story because we see young Nick coming one step closer to becoming a disillusioned adult. Really, though, all adults are disillusioned when compared to bright-eyed young kids. Santa not being real? Disillusionment. The stark reality of death? Also disillusionment, but, like, way more. It makes sense, though: as you get older, you get exposed to more things, and you learn more about the world you live in. A coming-of-age story is about those moments when you have to leave the comfort of childhood because life won't let you stay there forever… or, you know, because your dad decides today's a good day to come and watch an emergency C-section.
In the "Setting" section we talk about how Nick leaves the Indian camp changed—almost like he's a different person than the Nick who went in (but not in the creepy Pet Sematary sense). He has learned something about the world that he really can't unlearn, and this makes him more experienced. At the same time, he's not a complete adult just yet; his last thought in the story is about how death for him is still this distant and impossible thing. It shows us that Nick still has a long way to go, but it also reminds us that life only moves in one direction.
"Indian Camp" is also about the relationship between Nick and his father. Essentially Nick's dad loses some street cred with his son when it's revealed that he actually isn't as in control of everything as he initially seems to be. The most telling instance of this idea is when Nick's father apologizes to him after the incident:
"I'm terribly sorry I brought you along, Nickie," said his father, all his post-operative exhilaration gone. (47)
Nickie? That's a nickname (get it? Nickname?) we haven't heard yet. It's like Dr. Adams is suddenly trying to push his son back toward some sort of childhood innocence, undoing the revelation that sometimes people commit suicide.
Essentially, if you thought that things were tense between Nick and his dad before the suicide, they definitely are afterward. The tables turn on pretty much every level. Before, Nick had to listen to his father; after, Nick's father answers to him. You might also want to compare how Nick and his dad sit on the boat ride into the Indian camp to how they sit on the way back (be sure to head over to our "Themes" section and see what we've got to say about innocence). Ever been in an awkward car ride with one of your parents? Think of this as the 1924 edition of that.
Let's think of some of the other titles Hemingway might have come up with: "Nick and His Father Go on an Awkward Boat Ride"; "Parenting Gone Awry"; "How I Learned About Childbirth and Suicide"; "The Worst Bring-Your-Kid-to-Work Day Ever." All right, all right… coming up with titles isn't exactly our strong suit. Our point, though, is that there are a lot of different angles that Hemingway could have taken. He chose as seemingly innocuous a title as possible, though. "Indian Camp," on the most basic level, tells us where the story transpires.
One of the things you might notice is that Hemingway uses the word "Indian," which is a word that has lost most of its political correctness. It's easy to say that in Hemingway's day things were different (and they definitely were), but we could also explore this idea and say that "Indian Camp" possibly evokes a place of childhood adventures. Though Hemingway lived before the days of John Wayne movies and Tonto and the Lone Ranger, you can still imagine young children like Hemingway playing cowboys-and-Indians type games, or running through the woods imagining that they're the last of the Mohicans or something. So the idea of going over to the Indian camp might seem like a really exciting prospect for a child; it has a ring of adventure to it.
But, instead of a fantastic adventure, we get a harsh dose of reality. Considering that this is a story at least partially about leaving behind the innocence of childhood once the real world rears its sometimes-unpleasant head, the idea is fitting.
This story's ending packs an emotional punch:
In the early morning on the lake sitting in the stern of the boat with his father rowing, he felt quite sure that he would never die. (65)
How did we go from innocent (and naïve) questions to this sort of definitive conclusion? And why does Hemingway remind us that it's the early morning on the lake when he already told us that the sun was coming up in the last paragraph? And why does the seating chart of the boat matter? So many questions!
First off, let's talk about the dawn as a symbol. A new day means a new start. So at the dawn of this new day Nick is coming out of last night's confusions with a new understanding.
But that understanding isn't a very adult one. Death, or at least Nick's own death, seems impossible to Nick, even though he just witnessed it in another person. But this is his way of resolving the fact that he now has to live in a world where death is a reality. After all, do we go about our daily lives thinking about how we're going to die eventually? Remember, Nick is still a kid who just witnessed death for the first time, and he has to process this new information somehow.
And finally, the fact that Nick's dad is the one rowing the boat, with Nick in the stern (that's a fancy nautical word for the back) shows us that Nick still isn't quite ready to steer the boat himself. He still needs guidance; but even this image seems to foreshadow the fact that Nick is going to one day have to navigate for himself.
This one's easy, right? Maybe it's too easy. How are you supposed to interpret the fact that a story called "Indian Camp" takes place in an Indian camp?
Well, think about why the story didn't just take place at someone's house. First of all, if that was the case Nick's father really couldn't have brought Nick along ("Oh, hello Mrs. Smith, do you mind if my young son stands in the corner and watches while you have a baby?"). At the Indian camp, the Indians don't really have a choice (take a look at Nick's "Character Analysis" for more on the roles of race, gender, and power in the story). In fact, the story is more about Nick and Nick's father than it is about the Indians as characters. So the Indian camp is essentially the place where the characters go so that all the action can happen.
The fact that the story begins with Nick traveling to the camp and ends with him leaving the camp isn't a coincidence either. In essence, a different Nick is going to leave the camp than the Nick that entered it. This new Nick now has knowledge of suicide, and with it, thoughts about his own mortality. This new Nick has also now seen things that the old Nick was reluctant to look at. So the Indian camp is not just a place, but a catalyst that has changed him.
Trust us: this story does not earn a 3 because of its language, its length, or the complexity of its storyline. "Well, what else is there?" you're probably be asking. Though it may appear simple on pretty much every level, "Indian Camp," like most Hemingway stories, is deceptively dense. It just goes to show that you shouldn't judge a book by its… um… language? Length? Things you usually use to judge books?
What seems on the surface to be about a childbirth lesson gone horribly wrong actually touches on some pretty deep and complicated issues (see our "Themes" section to see what we mean)—and these aren't issues that get neatly resolved in five pages. We're not trying to scare you; on the contrary, we want you to read all the more closely, because otherwise it's easy to overlook what makes this story great.
Let's think about the first line of the story:
At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting. (1)
Wait, what do you mean another rowboat? So there was already a rowboat? How are we supposed to know that?
Oh. You see what Hemingway did there?
By talking to us as though we are already somehow familiar with the scene, Hemingway treats us like we already know what's going on. In turn, we feel like we already know what's going on. Right away, familiarity is fostered. By treating us this way, Hemingway is able to tell us everything we need to know about the scene by using subtle devices. To understand this better, let's consider the excerpted lines from the story right above.
If there is another rowboat, we know that there are two rowboats. And we know that they were expecting the two Indians to be waiting because they are the two Indians, instead of just "Two Indians stood waiting." See how important the article is there? Hemingway uses them all the time to foster a sense of familiarity, so be sure to keep your eye out for them. They're one of the ways Hemingway positions his readers to feel like they're already part of the scene and contribute to the familiar tone of the story. Hemingway writes so seamlessly that it's easy to just go along for the ride, taking the scenes in as they come.
This is a word that gets tossed around a lot whenever Hemingway is in the mix. It essentially means that you're probably never going to come across a ten-dollar word in a Hemingway story. But that's just at the level of diction; it also means that you're not going to get any Doestoevsky-esque internal monologues that go on for pages and include four sentences total. What you will get is a lot of short, descriptive sentences that are meant to contain everything you need to know about a character, a scene, or an action. For instance:
Inside on a wooden bunk lay a young Indian woman. She had been trying to have her baby for two days. All the old women in the camp had been helping her. (10)
How does Nick know all of this? Presumably someone told him, but we don't get to see him being told because that would take up valuable page space. Instead, Hemingway just assumes that we're sharp kids and we can follow along.
Ever hear someone say "Trust me, I'm a doctor"? Medicine holds a privileged position in our society. It's supposed to be rational, scientific, impartial—even impersonal. It's definitely impersonal in "Indian Camp," where Nick's dad doesn't even seem to care that much about the Indian woman's well-being; sure he operates on her to save her life and the baby's, but he also does so rather callously. "But her screams are not important" (18), he says, paying little attention to her screams or the fact that he doesn't have any anesthetic.
We get a sense of the cold meticulousness of medicine in the description of Dr. Adams washing his hands "very carefully and thoroughly" (21). Nick's dad may be a good doctor (and a sanitary one), but it seems to come at a cost of human empathy. And even though Nick's dad can perform a Caesarian with a jack-knife, he fails to identify or remedy the pain of the suicidal Indian man.
The idea of Western medicine is also implicit in this story. Western medicine basically refers to medical practices developed primarily in Europe and (post-colonization) North America. If you're picturing a guy in a white lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck jotting down a prescription in barely-legible doctor handwriting, then you're on the right track. Western medicine is often treated as superior to its various counterparts, though these other medical traditions have in many cases been around a good deal longer and often focus their attention on different components of the experience of illness. If you're thinking that Western medicine seems like a racially and culturally loaded term, you are absolutely right. It's an us-versus-them model and, as an idea, it's been circulating for the past few centuries.
Because Nick's father is a white doctor being called into an Indian camp, there is a nod toward the idea that the "Indian" medicine isn't able to resolve the Indian woman's condition, and a wiser and more authoritative figure needs to be brought in. So Nick's dad is in an even more privileged position because of this idea of Western medicine—but again, because Western medicine in the story is so emotionally distant and rational, it has no idea how to react in the face of something as ambiguous and multifaceted as suicide.
Is this story about a birth or a death? Well, you kind of need the former before you can have the latter. In fact, the figures of birth and death don't really become clear to us until we see them together. Before we get to the husband's suicide in the story, the birth is just a birth. Frankly, the fact that it's a birth as opposed to, say, an infection, or a triple-bypass, or an amputation, doesn't seem to matter all that much until we find the husband dead.
So the first thing we might notice about birth and death is that they seem to be associated with women and men respectively. Symbolically, it seems to make sense that birth would be associated with women, since they, you know, do it. But the symbolism isn't all that clear-cut here. It's not simply as though the woman is creating life: it looks as though the birth might actually kill her, or result in the death of the baby. And afterward, the woman is far from a symbol of life:
She was quiet now and her eyes were closed. She looked very pale. (36)
Awfully corpse-like, don't you think? In a way, this not-so-happy birth foreshadows the revelation of the husband's suicide, because we know that something is not quite right about this scene.
Death really takes over the story after the baby is delivered. Nick's dad's whole intention for the trip—getting his kid to see a live birth, which Nick is reluctant to do—becomes reversed when Nick ends up seeing what his father tries to hide from him. Take a gander at his reactions to first the birth, and then the suicide:
He was looking away so as not to see what his father was doing. (28)
Nick, standing in the door of the kitchen, had a good view of the upper bunk when his father, the lamp in one hand, tipped the Indian's head back. (45)
It's unclear here whether Nick looks at the suicide out of his own desire to see, or whether he accidently happens to get a full-frontal view of it. Given how squeamish Nick is, we can probably assume the latter, though it may be that Nick is more fascinated by the idea of death. We definitely get a sense of this from the awkward father-son talk on the boat ride back, in which Nick's questions are all about death and suicide instead of about the birth he just witnessed.
So death seems to win out in the end, but the question now is why. There isn't a hard, fast answer to this one. Instead, there are a few routes we could take: we could think about not just death, but the idea of suicide and how that corrupts a clean-cut view of the world; we could think about how all people end up contemplating their own mortality, and now Nick has been initiated into that adult world; we could think about how Nick's father is so eager to shield Nick from the suicide, even though he was pretty adamant about him watching the birth. See, death was just the beginning.
Nick is like our set of eyes—and, in a slightly weirder way, like our brain. Even though the story is told from a third-person perspective, it's a third person that describes Nick's view of things, both in terms of what he sees and how he feels about what he sees. First of all, Nick is the one doing all of the perceiving:
Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat… (3)
Nick lay back with his father's arms around him. (3)
When other people perform actions, it's Nick who describes them:
While his father washed his hands very carefully and thoroughly, he talked. (21)
How are you supposed to know that this is Nick's view, you ask? Well, a neutral narrator might have called Nick's father something other than Nick's father—like, say, Dr. Adams. The fact that this character is described only in terms of his relationship to Nick gives us a pretty big hint that Nick is the one doing most of the thinking here. As far as we know, anyway, no one calls our dad that but us.
But then you might be wondering why Nick doesn't just call him Dad. The answer is because this isn't a story told from a first-person perspective; if it were, we could imagine Nick thinking something like "My father washed his hands very carefully." But it's a murky middle ground in "Indian Camp" because of this lil' ole thing called free indirect discourse. Here it is in all it's crowning glory:
It all took a long time. (25)
That's it? Yup, and here's why: who is thinking that it all took a long time? The narrator? The narrator isn't a real person. No, the person who thought this is the person who feels how much time it takes. That person is, yep, you guessed it, Nick. It's the only way the line makes any sense. What's more, you probably processed all of this information without even thinking about it. It's a really clever technique that doesn't muddle up the story's language with a lot of he said/he thought boringness. After all, why bother saying it when it's already implied?
The story begins with Nick travelling to a place that he presumably has never been to before, about to witness something that he presumably has never witnessed before. New place + new experiences = ensuing shenanigans.
That new experience we just mentioned? Yeah, turns out to be less than pleasant and exciting for poor little Nick than we all might've hoped. This is when the action starts to rise. He spends most of the time trying not to look at what his father is doing, even though that was the whole point of bringing him along.
Just when we think everything is over and done with and all neatly sewn up (pun intended), we discover the husband's suicide. Everything that was fine is suddenly far from fine, and the whole lesson about where babies come from has been turned on its head.
Now Nick's father is left with a task somehow more difficult than doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and explaining the facts of life to his kid: he has to explain the facts of death and suicide. It's like the depressing side of the birds and the bees. On Nick's part, he now has to process this new information. This is one boat ride we're super happy not to be on.
The story's resolution comes in the very last line of the story. Before, Nick was still asking his father questions, so still acting as though his father had some sort of knowledgeable authority. But in the last line, Nick comes to his own conclusion about death, which still feels like this impossibility.
Whoa, where are all the shout-outs in this story? There just aren't any, dear reader. But that doesn't mean we can't still talk about them, by golly. By not situating the story in any real recognizable historical context (for instance, there isn't a radio in the background talking about Prohibition or World War I), this story could really take place at any time in the early twentieth century, and anywhere for that matter (or at least, anywhere where there are Indians). It gives the story a universal quality.