Like Hemingway’s own father, Nick Adams’ father is a physician. This is just one of the many similarities between the recurrent fictional character Adams and Hemingway himself.
There are so many parallels, in fact, that Nick Adams acts as Hemingway’s alter-ego in a series of short stories that Hemingway penned between 1924 and 1933, roughly. The series, beginning with Indian Camp, is a fascinating glimpse into the psyche, upbringing and young adulthood of one of America’s most storied and influential authors.
In Indian Camp, (1924) Dr. Adams is summoned to an isolated Native American settlement–most likely Ojibwe–in Michigan to attend a woman who has been in labor for two days. Dr. Adams takes his young son, Nick, and his brother, Uncle George with him. Two Ojibwe men from the settlement row the doctor, Uncle George and Nick across the lake bay.
It is predawn. Little is said on the boat ride. Nothing between the Native Americans and Anglo threesome. As they near the bank, Uncle George gives the Native American men some cigars.
They make the trek to the settlement and, along the way, are met by a pack of dogs. The Native Americans yell and scold, sending the curs scurrying toward the settlement. Finally they approach a row of shanties and are alerted to one by a light in the window and an elderly woman standing with a lamp outside the door.
Inside is a young woman in obvious labor and agony, writhing and screaming under a heavy quilt on a rough hewn lower bunk; her husband, badly wounded from a mishap with an ax, lies in the bunk above her. Dr. Adams examines her and determines that it is a breech birth and it will require a cesarean which he will perform with a hunting knife and catgut sutures. He carefully washes his hands and sterilizes the primitive instruments.
Young Nick holds a basin of steaming water while his father operates. He looks away from the spectacle, staring over his shoulder. “Can’t you give her anything, daddy?” he asks, disturbed by the woman’s screams and struggling.
“No. I haven’t any anesthetic,” his father said. “But her screams are not important. I don’t hear them because they are not important.” The husband in the upper bunk rolled over against the wall.
During the operation three Native American men and Uncle George hold the woman down. She bites Uncle George on the arm. “Damn squaw bitch,” he yells. One of Ojibwe men laughs.
The operation goes well enough, though afterwards the young woman is white as a ghost and so weak that she is delirious. Still, Dr. Adams is especially pleased with himself. The baby is in good shape.
He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game. “That’s one for the medical journal, George,’ he said. “Doing a cesarean with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders.”
The good doctor’s exuberance is diminished when he decides to check on the husband in the upper bunk.
“Ought to have a look at the proud father. They’re usually the worst sufferers in these little affairs,” the doctor said. “I must say he took it all pretty quietly.”
The man is dead. It’s suicide in the most awful way: he has cut his own neck from ear to ear with a straight razor.
Dr. Adams orders Uncle George to take Nick out of the shanty, but it’s of little use. Nick has seen everything.
Unceremoniously Dr. Adams and Nick walk back down the logging trail towards the lake. Uncle George has disappeared. Dr. Adams apologizes to his son for bringing him along, saying that the trip turned out to be a terrible mess with the suicide.
Nick asks about the woman.
‘”Do ladies always have such a hard time having babies?'”
“No, that was very, very exceptional.'”
“Why did he kill himself, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, Nick. He couldn’t stand things, I guess.”
”Do many men kill themselves, Daddy?”
”Not very many, Nick.”
”Do many women?”
Nick and his father board the boat alone and row themselves across the bay. With the sun on the rise and the fish jumping Nick feels relieved and content. He is confident that he will never die.
Ernest Hemingway’s famed economical prose is at its most sparse in Indian Camp. It is told simply and straightforwardly from young Nick’s point of view.
While we do not know Nick’s exact age there are clues that he is very young. Perhaps seven or eight years old since he is ostensibly old enough to accompany his father but young enough to still call him daddy; he reclines against his father on the boat ride to the settlement. Dr. Adams tells his son that they are going to help and “Indian” woman who is very sick.
That there is no conversation between the Ojibwe men and Nick, his father and Uncle George is telling. This is an arrangement of necessity. There are entrenched boundaries that will not be crossed. The alliance is strained and transient. The Anglos have the upper hand from years of delving out and befitting from institutional racism, oppression and forced subjugation.
The Ojibwe have waited until they have exhausted all of their means of delivering the child. The old woman waiting outside the shanty signifies this. She and the other mature women of the settlement have been tending to the laboring woman for two days. They have given up in order to save the mother. This action represents Native Americans finally relinquishing their land and freedom to the interloping Anglos and the Native peoples retreating to squalid reservations in order to preserve their lives and a fraction of their heritage.
Dr. Adams represents 20th century WASP male entitlement and privilege. He has little regard for the Native American woman. There is no sensitivity for her modesty, he barges into her home with his son and brother and has them observe and assist him without her or her husband’s consent. He has no sympathy for her suffering. He does not bring anesthetic, though he may not have access to it; he does not comfort her in anyway. He is purely clinical with her in his manner. He never speaks to her.
Although Dr. Adams undoubtedly knows that the woman has been in labor for days, which is reason for him to suspect a breech birth, he does not bring surgical instruments. He wants to test his skills on her. Can he pull off surgery on this woman in a primitive setting and with ordinary layman’s tools? She is a mere guinea pig to him. He admits as much when he tells his son that he is immune to the woman’s screams because they mean nothing to him. Upon hearing this the husband turns away from the scene and faces the wall where he will commit suicide stealthily.
Later when Dr. Adams and Nick walk back to the boat, Nick first asks about the woman. He feels guilty–he is thinking of his mother and what she must have gone through laboring with him. His father assures him that this was an extraordinary case. But even here he has signaled to his son that a woman’s birthing travails are of little consequence when he decides to check on the woman’s husband, saying that men usually suffer more “in these little affairs.”
When Nick asks why the husband killed himself, the doctor intimates to his son that he couldn’t stand his wife’s suffering. But that is only partly true. The doctor’s disrespect of his wife and their home is more than the man can take. It is the tip–albeit a huge one–of the iceberg of an entire peoples suffering at the insolent, arrogant hands of American Anglo Saxons in general. It is the final indignation, one that he cannot abide.
Once Nick and his father are in the boat and rowing across the lake bay, Nick is calmed and reassured by the distance between himself and the Ojibwe settlement. He is back within his cocoon of WASP male privilege. He feels that nothing, not even death, can touch him there, but the ramifications of what he has seen loom in the recesses of his mind.