Coming into the Country

ISBN: 0374522871
ISBN 13: 9780374522872
By: John McPhee

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About this book

This is the story of Alaska and the Alaskans. Written with a vividness and clarity which shifts scenes frequently, and yet manages to tie the work into a rewarding whole, McPhee segues from the wilderness to life in urban Alaska to the remote bush country.

Reader's Thoughts


The book has three pieces. The first two are shorter but I only would rate them one star. The last longer piece for which the book is named is much better and I would rate 3 stars. The first story takes place in North West Alaska near Kotzebue,and is full of country political tirades most of which I found somewhat offensive from my Yukon upbringing. I don't know what the five of them were doing going down the river but I was not impressed with their preparation or boats. Most of them were government employees on, what looked like to me, a government paid boondoggle. He digressed to Northern pilots, who did not now where they are in the countryside, which was unfortunately often very true for the American pilots but much less so for the Canadian side of the border. Thank you GPS for taking care of that problem. Bear spray also helped for another problem that he dwells on. Thanks to this technology, my wife and I usually carry it rather than a rifle in bad Yukon bear country. We have not ever had to use either as the bears usually just amble off. The second piece describes an even bigger government boondoggle - searching for a new Alaska capital. What a waste of money as these officials including the author flew around the country in helicopters and pontificated. I am glad better minds decided that the current capital, Juneau, would do!The third piece describes a bunch of mostly crazies living on the Yukon river area East of Fairbanks. Mostly losers but a kind of interesting group eking an existence in the bush. Some actually living outside of government dole. He describes this area as upper Yukon river, but from my prospective (Whitehorse/ Carcross) it was way down river. He does a good job showing the the vicious pettiness that exists in some of these small isolated communities, and some of the real social problems there. However, he probably romanticize the life too much. It really fits only a very few people and then often not for too long. I like his descriptions of the countryside particularly the freeze and breakup of the Yukon River.The author's book "Annual of the Former World" is a much better read and worth 3-4 stars.


If you are interested in tagging along with park planners, biologists, and wildlife experts as they scope out the terrain in 1970s Alaska for park designation; helicoptering around the state with city planners, McHargian acetaters (just a few years removed from when Ian McHarg first developed his overlay system), and politicians as they search for a new capitol of the state; or living among "bushmen" near the Yukon River and reveling in their stories of survival and pragmatism; then this is the book for you. It is a fascinating read, one that delves into how humans adapt themselves to the harsh conditions of the land (camping in conditions well below freezing), inhabiting the terrain with other creatures (all too often kill or be killed), and living off the land. The finest moments are when McPhee writes of the mysterious allure of the grizzly bear, which occur throughout the book—perhaps a metaphor of the indomitable land itself.


This book took a while to finish. The first two sections were very interesting and I read through them quickly. In fact, I wish they were longer - especially since they gave the read more of a historical context for the book. The third section of the book (which account for 1/2-2/3 of the pages in the book) gets somewhat tedious by about the first 50 pages in. McPhee spends a lot of time describing the details of what seems like almost everyone who lives in the small village of Eagle, AK. He describes how their life brought them to the 'country,' how they make their living, their politics, how they feels about others in the village. While this is interesting at first, 250 pages of this sort of description wears thin quickly. It would have been very hard to sit down and try to plow through this section of the book. Instead, I picked it up and read 15-20 pages at a time to take a break from other books I was reading. McPhee is a great writer, but this would have been a more compelling book had the last section been more direct, and perhaps more connection to the first two sections of the book.

Cindy Dyson Eitelman

John McPhee on bears:There is an old adage that when a pine needle drops in the forest the eagle will see it fall; the deer will hear it when it hits the ground; the bear will smell it.Coming Into the Country is a rambling, three part book about Alaska. It doesn't try to be an encyclopedia or a reference work, but simply the story of The Country, as told through the minds and hearts of people who live there. The first part recounted the author's journey via canoe and kayak on the Salmon river in the Bear Mountain range, and it was good, solid travel adventure. I liked very much.But the rest of the book didn't agree with me so well. It was stories of people, mostly--little natural history but a lot of human stories about life and living and death and walking a razors edge in a cold, lonely country. What kind of person builds a cabin on a stream a thousand miles from the nearest outpost, and lives there through the arctic winter? What people come to live in the town of Eagle, population 300 or so, and why do they stay?Usually I love this sort of storytelling (Blue Highways and Travels With Charley are two of my favorite books to re-read) but this one just seemed to go on and on, dragging without power to charm or amuse. Possibly it's my fault, not the book's. I just got tired of it.


This book made me afraid to read any other John McPhee -- and there's apparently a copious amount of McPhee -- because they might not be as perfect as this one. He writes right on the ridgeline between dull and transcendent (and transcendence, without contrast, without a reminder of what is transcended, gets dull again), and I fear that other books might tip off and be gone baby gone.Also, Drop City was a really good book -- and most of what was good about it was taken pretty much directly from Coming into the Country (or else the author's name's more like T. Coincidence Boyle). See also: Caleb Carr nabbing the whole Diane Downs story (from Small Sacrifices), setting it in 19th century New York, and calling it The Angel of Darkness.


Three adventures from backcountry Alaska. The first, about a canoe trip with naturalists, kept putting me to sleep (sorry, John!). The second concerns a search for a new Alaskan capital city, and that was pretty interesting especially in light of the fact that it still hasn't happened. The third section of the book, also called "Coming Into the Country," is the most compelling. It concerns those who live in back-country Alaska far from towns, sometimes in country reachable only by canoe or plane. But overall, I found the book overwritten, and McPhee too likely to quote from his subjects at too great a length.

Clif Brittain

I love McPhee's writing. I first read this book when it was published in part in the New Yorker, and again soon after it was published as a book. So this is the third time I've read it. I've read maybe ten books three times, so I really, really like this.First, because McPhee writes so beautifully. He could write about anything and I would read it. I've even read his geology books. Not because I like geology, (I don't), but because I just eat up his words. It is like eating chocolate, I usually stop when the supply runs out, not because I'm finished.Second, the people and the spirit that makes up Alaska. Everything is so unbelievably huge. I love the stories about people who cut tractors up into pieces, fly them to remote regions, weld them back together so they can build an airstrip for a bigger plane.Third, the Alaska he writes about was disappearing when he wrote it, and has been replaced with at least two generations of Alaska since then. I will be visiting Alaska this summer and I am looking forward to seeing what's new and what remains of the old. Will it be strip malls? I'll let you know.


Very enjoyable book. The version I read from my local library was 438 pages long, a different version than the one listed above. I enjoyed the first part on navigating rivers and encountering salmon and grizzly bears in the Brooks range and the last part which was on what it takes to live life in the rugged Alaskan town of Eagle and surrounding places. The middle part dealt with politics within the state and was just not as interesting to me. I wonder if there is an update from McPhee on this book, since it was written in the 70's. I would guess attitudes on Alaskan independence may still simmer. Best part of the book for me was McPhee's great story-telling and his talent to capture the ruggedness not only of the people of Alaska but also the ruggedness of its weather and terrain. When -20 is a decent winter day and -50 is somewhat common, that's a whole lot worse than I've seen in New England.

Rick Naud

Rare are the books that let me disconnect from the urban world to connect with something greater, simple but very natural. The book (mostly part I and III though of the three parts) leaves you with an impression similar to that of a great adventure : “We are at the end of this trip now, and from the moment it began no one has once mentioned anything that did not have to do with Alaska.”


A wonderful book, only slightly tainted by it's obsolescence. As mentioned in other reviews, each chapter has been made quite out-of-date by events that have happened since publication. The book is broken into three parts. Backcountry paddling with bureaucrats and ecologists, trying to determine how the land should be split up; flying with bureaucrats, trying to decide on a new location for Alaska's capital; and living in Eagle, meeting the locals and describing their livelhoods.I found the first chapter very engrossing and is the least obsolete of the three. Chapter two was interesting, and chapter three was a bit long and hard to keep track of the personalities, but very interesting. I definitely felt like this book took me on a trip and taught me a lot. Highly recommend.


Another good John McPhee collection of essays. I guess they're all pretty much like this, with some truly exceptional stuff mixed in with material that I find less appealing. The writing is always engaging but sometimes veers (usually briefly) into purple prose. Half the book is taken up with one long essay describing the residents of a tiny bush town on the Yukon River and the huge, almost totally unpopulated region surrounding the town. The area is apparently stuffed full of fascinating characters, and the essay shows several sides of many of them. The other two, much shorter essays were less appealing. Especially the middle one, which covers the search for a new state capitol, as mandated by the voters of Alaska in the mid 1970s. That process never got completed, which is at this point probably a more interesting story than what's here. But even that was engrossing enough to keep me reading.

Ruth Everhart

This book is really 3 pieces under 1 cover. The first piece describes a trip on a remote river in a beautiful section of Alaska, bordering the Yukon territory. The language is poetic and the focus is on the ecological beauty of the area. The second piece is more sociological, describing characters in Alaska's history, and some of the trends of settlement. Interesting stuff. The third piece is the one the book is named for, a collection of stories about people who have "come into the country," meaning, entered Alaska.I read this book while I was in Alaska, and since returning. It was a wonderful partner to the trip and increased my appreciation of Alaska's rich resources: natural beauty, history, and characters! McPhee manages to have a literary style without getting mired down, a real feat when there is not one plot thread for the reader to hang onto throughout.

Darren Hawkins

I really enjoy books that give a strong sense of time and place. When the prose involves landscape, rugged country, people and nature living in harmony and tension, then I'm often hooked. Such is the case with this detailed and fascinating picture of Alaska in the 1970s. While now 35 years old and written in a journalistic style, this book provides an enduring and engaging portrait of a vast land and the people who inhabit it. The author excels at describing the peculiarities and frailties of the folks who are drawn to the relative emptyness of rural Alaska. I almost feel I could open my front door and start panning for gold on the Yukon, so compelling are the stories.


I enjoyed the audiobook, but at times it seemed to be repetitious, and I found my attention drifting.Narrated By: Nelson Runger14 CD / 16.25 HoursThose who have traveled into America’s only remaining frontier rarely come back out the same. Only in Alaska can we come close to understanding what our forefathers must have felt upon their arrival in the New World. McPhee brings to this narrative the qualities that have distinguished him in the field of travel literature—tolerance, brisk, and entertaining prose, and a fascination with things most of us never bother to notice.

Lisa Vegan

I know this is practically sacrilegious, but this was my second favorite book I read before I traveled to Alaska in the early 80s. My favorite book was Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss.

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