Ernest Hemingway's "Ten Indians" is a short story of initiation and adolescence, set during a Fourth of July in Northern Michigan. Like most of Hemingway's Nick Adams tales, it is somewhat autobiographical. It details slight but telling incidents centered around a truth Nick discovers: Love that is not deeply felt does not need a lengthy mourning period when it ends.
Nine Little Indians, One Big One
The story begins with Nick returning from a celebration with the Garners; they glimpse nine drunken Indians on the way home and then discuss the 10th, Nick's girlfriend Prudence Mitchell. The Garners display some uncomfortably racist attitudes against Native Americans, comparing them to skunks: "They smell about the same." There are six men in the conversation, but the lone woman, Mrs. Garner, a surrogate for Nick's mother, seems sharper-tongued than any man when she mentions her son Carl "can't get a girl, not even a squaw." Nick has mixed feelings, "hollow but happy," as he tolerates their badinage.
Surrogate Parent to Real Parent, Frying Pan to Fire
Mrs. Garner now reinforces both her ingrained dislike of "them Indians," and her nurturing of white-skinned Nick. Her husband says, "Nick can have Prudence ... I got a good girl," and she smiles, replying, "That's the way to talk." She then offers Nick dinner, calling him "Nickie," and regrets his departure. If Mrs. Garner's attitudes are distasteful, however, they're nothing compared to the cloaked coldness he receives from his father, Dr. Adams, on his return home. Making a "big shadow on the kitchen wall" as he sits in front of Nick, the father quickly and crisply breaks his son's heart.
Cold Dinner, Cold Father
In terse dialogue, a Hemingway specialty, Dr. Adams tells Nick, over a dinner of cold chicken and pie, that he saw Prudence "threshing around" with another man at the Indian camp. Nick asks "Were they happy?" as if to reassure himself of emotional closure on Prudence's part, and then bursts into tears, a reaction his father ignores. In bed alone, he has an emotional revelation: "If I feel this way my heart must be broken." Hemingway now has his youthful counterpart "forget to think about Prudence," foreshadowing the ease he will experience in getting over her.
Nick Grows Up Overnight
Nick's adolescent initiation into an emotionally inhibited adulthood is revealed in the story's end when "he was awake a long time before he remembered that his heart was broken." Influenced by parental coldness and neighborly racism, he mentally pigeonholes Prudence, the one Indian who was special to him, with the nine drunkards. They are now only "ten Indians," a lump of common and unremarkable humanity.