Originally printed in the April 1924 Transatlantic Review as “Work in Progress” and published the following year as part of In Our Time, “Indian Camp” is Ernest Hemingway’s earliest Nick Adams story. It focuses primarily on the relationship between father and son, and on its attendant rites of initiation into the world of adult experience: childbirth, loss of innocence, suicide.
The boy, Nick Adams, accompanies his doctor father to the Indian camp where a pregnant woman has serious complications as she labors to give birth. Dr. Adams ultimately saves her life and that of the baby by performing a cesarean section, but, shortly afterward, the woman’s husband commits suicide. A number of specific questions have puzzled critics for decades: Why does the Indian husband kill himself? What is Uncle George’s role, and why does he disappear by the end of the story? How are we supposed to feel toward Dr. Adams? Though the story is consistently read as a father-son initiation tale, these sorts of questions encourage readers to look beyond the simple and benevolent fact that Dr. Adams almost surely saved the life of the Indian woman and her baby, and focus attention on some of the more disturbing aspects of the story. First, the Indian woman’s screams have been going on for a long time, so long that the men of the village have purposely moved out of earshot; but Dr. Adams tells Nick that the screams “are not important” (68) and chooses not to hear them. As a doctor, he may adopt this attitude as a professional necessity in order to accomplish the difficult task of performing the operation without anesthetic. Conversely, it may indicate his callousness to the woman’s evident pain.
Readers’ views of Dr. Adams may then influence the way they interpret the Indian husband’s suicide: Why does he slit his throat moments after Dr. Adams has operated and the baby is successfully delivered? Do readers see a connection between the presence of Uncle George and the husband’s decision to kill himself? Is Uncle George the father of the baby, as some critics suggest? Readers must also decide whether Uncle George’s remark to Dr. Adams, “Oh, you’re a great man, all right” (69), is meant seriously or sarcastically. Hemingway’s oblique and sparse writing style encourages such open-ended questions, and his ending to the story refuses to settle on a single, clear resolution. A short burst of questions from Nick to his father on the significance of life and death leave him with this final thought: “he felt quite sure he would never die” (70). Nick’s reflections on immortality, here in the protective warmth of his father’s arms, may represent his last moments of youthful innocence before he falls into such adult experiences as romance and war in the later chapters of In Our Time.