The story opens in a small town in Michigan called Horton’s Bay. The countryside round about the town is farming and timber country and catches breezes from Lake Michigan. Jim Gilmore, originally from Canada, is the town blacksmith, does a good job, and takes his meals at D.J. Smith’s, where Liz Coates works in the kitchen. Liz is obsessed with Jim but he doesn’t think about her much beyond a vague sense of appreciation at how neat her hair is.
Liz and Mrs. Smith see Jim, D.J. Smith, and Charley Wyman off on a fall deer-hunting trip. The women were cooking for four days beforehand and although Liz wanted to make something special for Jim, she was too embarrassed to attempt it.
Anticipation of the Jim’s return builds inside Liz all the time they are gone, but when they do return with three deer, she is disappointed because nothing special happened. That night, Charley Wyman stays to supper at Smith’s and the men drink whiskey before dinner. Dinner passes without incident, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith go upstairs, leaving Jim and Charley drinking together in the front room and Liz in the kitchen.
Jim comes out of the front room obviously drunk and enters the kitchen, where Liz is reading a book. He starts touching her, and though she is shocked because no one has touched her before, she enjoys it. Jim suggests they go for a walk and they exit the house, kissing on the way down to the warehouse on the dock.
They sit down on the dock next to the warehouse and Jim starts feeling Liz up. She is scared and eager, but as Jim insists on having sex, fear takes over Liz and she tells him to stop. He doesn’t stop, and when he’s finished he falls asleep on top of her.
She gets up and tries to rouse Jim, but as he doesn’t stir she begins to cry. However, she kisses his cheek and puts her coat over him, then walks up toward the house.
“Up in Michigan” is a tale of an unequal romantic encounter and the disillusionment that results from it. Liz Coates, while obsessed with Jim Gilmore, the town blacksmith, is unprepared for a whiskey-soaked Jim’s sexual advances one fall evening. The sexual encounter that results has been the subject of fierce debate among Hemingway scholars; some term it “rape” while others argue Liz seduced Jim.
Hemingway’s own language hints that Liz was not wholly opposed to the encounter though what she actually says to Jim makes it clear that she is; the fact that there is a discrepancy between what she is thinking and what she tells Jim does not excuse Jim’s forcing himself on her. He is not privy to her thoughts and the fact that he disregards her commands to stop indicates a good deal of cruelty, arrogance or both.
It has often been observed by Hemingway scholars that stylistically, “Up in Michigan” is an imitation of the repetitive style popularized by Gertrude Stein. For example, in the third paragraph of the story, Hemingway describes Liz’s feelings about Jim almost entirely using the phrase “she liked it”: “She liked it about his mustache. She liked it about how white his teeth were when he smiled.” This not only emphasizes the fact that Liz is a simple, unsophisticated girl, but also drives home the degree to which Liz is obsessed with Jim. She barely thinks about anything else, and it seems there is nothing she doesn’t like about him.
“Up in Michigan” is written largely from Liz’s point of view, and this fact makes the story notable in the Hemingway canon. Most of his stories are written from a male perspective, and most of his female characters are unsympathetic, either helpless or shrewish. Liz falls partially into the first category; her behavior is naïve, lovelorn and somewhat passive, but she is nevertheless a sympathetic character. Because of Hemingway’s extensive narration from her point of view, the reader takes the journey from infatuation to disillusionment with her.
This fact, coupled with the fact that Liz experiences the familiar Hemingway theme of disillusionment, implies that she is the protagonist of the story. Liz is disillusioned about love and sex following her experience with Jim. After an extended period of complete and utter obsession with Jim, Liz finally has the chance to be physically intimate with him, but the encounter turns into a rough and unpleasant experience. The object of her obsession takes her virginity and then falls dead asleep as if nothing had happened. Hemingway gives the character of Liz a decidedly sympathetic cast.
Nonetheless, the characters of Jim and Liz play to established gender stereotypes. Jim is a blacksmith, usually considered a manly profession, and discusses politics and keeps up with the news. He also goes out hunting with his neighbors and gets drunk with them upon his return, two traditionally masculine rituals. Liz, on the other hand, is completely subsumed in kitchen duties and in watching Jim. Her obsession with him approaches hero worship, and when their relationship reaches a crisis on the dock, she says no, but her nature prevents further confrontation when he ignores her.