The first short story I ever taught was Indian Camp, by Hemmingway. It is a story I have never tired of and was also the first lesson I taught every year to my Year Ten groups, to basically frighten them off having unprotected sex. I doubt it worked, but at least I could say I tried.
Like many of Hemmingway’s texts, the story is told without elaboration but is deceptive in its simplicity. Whenever I read it, I think back to Hemmingway’s autobiographical book, A Moveable Feast, which documents the time he was in Paris perfecting his craft and although I have probably misremembered it, I have an image of him in my mind, walking the streets with one word repeating in his brain: ‘reduce, reduce, reduce’ as he pared his prose back and back again until all that was left was absolutely necessary.
The story is about a young boy, Nick, who is taken by his father – a doctor – across the water to an Indian Camp. He has been called out because a woman has been in labour for two days and can not give birth. With them is Nick’s Uncle George, a man who seems more comfortable socialising with the Indians they encounter during the visit. The three go into the hut where they find the woman suffering. Her husband, who had cut his foot badly three days earlier with an axe is in the bunk over her. The woman is screaming, the hut is filthy.
Nick’s father is all about the process when he gets there, rather than the humans who are in the hut. He sees a job to be done and goes about it with brutal efficiency. He explains to Nick that the birth is breach and he may have to operate. He scrubs up, tips the few instruments he has brought with him into a pan of boiling water and goes to work.
The baby is born and lives. The mother by now is too exhausted to care but Nick’s father is exhilarated at the medical stunt he has just pulled off. Then they discover that the woman’s husband had silently slit his own throat while lying in the top bunk and listening to the screams of his wife. Nick has witnessed both a brutal birth and a brutal death within the space of a few minutes.
On the way back, he asks his father about death and sitting in the boat, feels quite sure he will never die.
I love the oppositions that are set up in the story. The physical and metaphorical journey that Nick takes with his father and Uncle George from the ‘civilized’ world to the basic conditions where the Indians live. There does not even appear to be electricity: they are escorted to the hut and greeted at its door by lamplight.
There is the contrast between the two brothers. Nick’s father is clearly a talented – possibly brilliant – surgeon but he clearly has no people skills. He does not communicate with the Indians, he is all about the job in hand.
‘Her screams are not important,’ he says, ‘I don’t hear them because they are not important.’ Clearly, the screams are important, because they are what drive the woman’s husband to take his own life, which he does utterly silently. Uncle George, meanwhile passes cigars around to the Indians.
Quite what Uncle George is doing in this story could be debated. It is clear that he is the more socially able of the brothers but there is also a possibility that he could have fathered the child. Is that why Nick’s father got called in at all? Is that also what drove the husband to take his own life? Is that what all the cigars are about? Or is it just that the way this white man tries to communicate with the Indians is as crude and lacking in understanding as the Indians’ knowledge of basic medical procedures?
There is the emotional opposition with Nick’s father moving from exhilaration at performing a successful operation against impossible odds to frustration at the husband’s suicide. This is also running in parallel with him wanting to teach his son about life and then trying to shield him from death, which he fails to do.
And of course the big opposition is with life and death. The fight to get born and the fight to stay alive. Nick asks his father about the Indian man’s suicide and whether dying is hard. ‘It is pretty easy, Nick… it all depends,’ his father says. He had wanted to take his son across to instruct him – to show him a little of what his profession was about – maybe to show off a bit, he had not counted on the suicide.
Still, as they row away from the huts, from the dirt and the dogs and the screams of the woman, from the pain of a crudely improvised Caesarian section and the death of a man, and they cross the calmness of the lake, Nick feels once again insulated from the reality of all that he has just seen and safe again.
Of course in reality, this was not to be the case. Not only did Hemmingway commit suicide in his middle age, but his father had died that way as did two of his siblings. Life is not always about gliding over the soft calm waters of a lake, it can be messy and it can exact a terrible toll.
But for now, let us allow young Nick some peace in the boat with his father rowing, and leave him to trail his hand in the warm water as a bass jumps up and traces a circle in its surface as a new sun comes up behind the hills.