Nick lay back with his father's arms around him. (3)
Sounds pretty comforting to us. Safety, security, complete trust—Nick isn't thinking at all about the big mean world. That's something for grown-ups like his dad to worry about. But little does Nick know that the big mean world is waiting for him at the camp.
"You don't know," said his father. "Listen to me. What she is going through is called being in labor. The baby wants to be born and she wants it to be born. All her muscles are trying to get the baby born. That is what is happening when she screams." (14)
This reads like a remedial midwife lesson, right? Nick's father may not be prepping him for med school, but he is trying to prepare him for life. In exposing Nick to the "facts of life," Nick's father imposes a rather stoic, matter-of-fact order onto something as scary as childbirth. You can almost hear the implicit "Buck up and face the facts" in this statement.
Nick did not watch. His curiosity had been gone for a long time. (32)
Nick isn't as eager to face the harsh world as his father would like him to be. Honestly, though, not wanting to watch someone get stitches doesn't really have a whole lot to do with age or maturity; it's just that Nick's dad seems to think that it builds character to have to face these things without feeling queasy (though he is a doctor, so his point of view might be a little skewed).
There was no need for that. 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)
Of all the things to see, Nick has a front-row seat of the Indian man's death. Knowing that Nick tried to avoid seeing the Indian woman's Caesarian procedure, it seems significant that seeing the suicide is unavoidable for him. If we take this metaphorically, is it possible that it says something about how in life we are all eventually forced to confront death?
"I'm terribly sorry I brought you along, Nickie," said his father, all his post-operation exhilaration gone. "It was an awful mess to put you through." (47)
Here is Nick's dad trying to comfort him and reassure him that the world in fact is not an awful place (take a look at what we say about this passage under Men and Masculinity earlier in the "Themes" section to see how we read its language). But as you can see, it's a pretty sobering moment, and it seems like maybe Nick's dad won't be able to undo that revelation for his son.
They were seated in the boat, Nick in the stern, his father rowing. (64)
You might recall that on their way to the Indian camp, Nick was laying with his father's arms around him (3). Now they are separated, awkwardly sitting in different parts of the boat, his father doing the rowing (like he is re-gaining control). This is actually a really big change, because it shows us that Nick is no longer his father's little boy; and this incident has not only changed Nick, but in the process has also changed his relationship to his father.