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

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.

Brian Davis

This book has meant a lot to me as an Alaskan interested in the raggedy interplay between development and conservationism, although I had never read it in its entirety. Now I have. I would say this book at best offers a kind, sympathetic view of all sorts of Alaskans circa 1977, a period which I just barely remember from grade school. I still recall the statewide debate on whether to give "Mount McKinley" the new/old name of "Denali" as part of ANILCA, then called the D-2 Lands Bill, which was a hot-button topic (i.e. federal take-over) for Alaskans such as my parents. I remember the debate to move the capital to Willow. I remember John Denver's goodwill trip to Alaska to promote conservation and the passage of ANILCA. It was all HIGHLY charged politics in which the feds were dabbling, playing, frivolizing with OUR land. The outgrowth of both the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act and the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act are INCREDIBLY far reaching with regards to living and working in Alaska today. In that respect, the first two chapters of the book are now dated and rather nostalgic, kind of a time-capsule of what was going on while these landmark Congressional laws were being sussed out.The chapter "Coming Into The Country" (nearly half of the book) on the Yukon River/Charley River area of Interior Alaska was by far the best part of the book, focusing on the communities of Central, Circle, and Eagle and the idealistic, sometimes hard-nosed characters that live there. Although McPhee, in what I've read, was an impressionable young man leaning to the side of environmental conservation at the expense of economic development, I think his writing in this book shows both a reverence for Alaska's brand of wilderness (in a word, awesome) as well as a sympathetic, humane perspective on the toll that Congressional protectionism, environmental regulation, and romantic idealism has on the lives of real families living in "the country". (The best writing is the transcription of journal entries made by a young man, Rich Corazza, living alone in a cabin somewhere around Eagle. This section is one third into the last section "Coming Into The Country" and made me grin and laugh out loud. A true seeker with a good dose of humor and longing.)


As someone looking into the prospect of moving to Alaska, McPhee's epic three-part story was indispensable to me. As a journalist on a steep learning curve trying to adjust to doing news something more than a new place, "Coming into the Country" was a revelation and a big part of my being able to discuss state-wide issues with some authority. I'm an unabashed fan of narrative non-fiction. McPhee is a master of the craft. I regularly go back and read passages of this book to get some clarity on certain big-picture and statehood issues. My goal is to revisit the places McPhee visited during the 70s when he wrote the book in order to see where things have changed in the 30-some years since the book's publication.


This book was a challenge for me. McPhee divided his exploration of Alaska into three sections--the first, stage-setting section on the northern tree line; the second, uses the search for an ideal site for a new state capital to explore urban Alaska; and the final section, on "the bush," really focuses on the motives and lifestyles of in-migrants to the state. I breezed through the first two parts; the relocation of the state capital (which never happened) in particular was literally a bird's eye view of Alaskan cities and their inhabitants. The third part, however, desperately needed editing: descriptions of grizzly dangers, gold-sluicing methods, and conflicts among resource-hungry and cabin-fevered Yukon inhabitants became monotonous and overly repetitive. McPhee clearly became enamored of the rugged individualists who chose to leave the Lower Forty-eight behind to build lives based on subsistence and skills-building. While his book does not gloss over their less admirable qualities--a tendency toward paranoia, chaos, alchoholism, and particularly misogyny--he comes down firmly for their willingness to pit themselves against nature. Surveying the environmental effects of one gold-mining team's efforts, he writes, "This pretty little stream is being disassembled in the name of gold.... Am I disgusted? Manifestly not.... This mine is a cork on the sea. Meanwhile (and, possibly more seriously), the relationship between this father and son is as attractive as anything I have seen in Alaska--both of them self-reliant beyond the usual reach of the term, the characteristic formed by this country." (410) This celebration of masculine triumph over nature is nothing new, and is disappointing from a writer who can be such a subtle thinker.


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.

Mardel Fehrenbach

I have read this book before, but that neither lessens or increases my enjoyment of the book particularly. Although technically I would call McPhee a journalist, his writing at its best is better than that of most novelists writing today and his turn of phrase and powers of description can have a poetic quality. That said, although I loved reading this book, it is not my favorite book by this author and hence, not in my mind at least, his best, hence the rating of only four stars. I have never warmed up to the middle section of the book, "In Urban Alaska" and tended to read this portion much more quickly, almost skimming at times, whereas the first and last sections were more worth savoring. I am not sure that the writing is less compelling, or if it is just my own biases, but I find his descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness and the iconoclastic people who live there far more compelling. It is a book I will read again.


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.


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.


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.


OK, I admit it was the "Cheechakos and Sourdoughs" line that made me pick up this book on Alaska--I realized I knew very little about the state (for example, is it anywhere near Russia?) but was willing to learn, and I also hadn't read a McPhee book in a couple of years. The obvious flaw in this one is that it is very much a product of 1974, so it's difficult to read it without wondering how much is entirely different 35 years later (probably a whole lot). Still, I'm rather enjoying the section on whether to move the capital from Juneau, and knowing the outcome somehow doesn't diminish the suspense. It also helps me understand why a governor who lives in, say, Wasilla would grumble about commuting to Juneau (see, I have learned something). The trope of the river journey in part 1 is a little old hat for McPhee. We'll see how much I like part 3 when I get to it. POSTSCRIPT: Part 3 is a book unto itself, as well as the best part of the collection. And the term "cheechako" finally comes up on p. 300.


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.


“If anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be the place to hid it." What a vivid way to describe Alaska's immensity. 'There has been a host of excellent books on Alaska. My favorite until recently was Joe McGinnis's Going to Extremes but John McPhee's Coming Into the Country is wonderful, too. McPhee's book is divided into three parts: first an exploration of wilderness described during the course of a canoe/kayak trip down the Salmon River. Much in the manner of the river, his descriptions meander into all sorts of eddies and whirlpools. His description of bush pilots is priceless. On one occasion he is flying (a regularly scheduled airline, mind you) in a single engine plane in horrible weather. The pilot is skimming the trees to find landmarks because he can't see anything. He has a map on his lap, but suddenly hands it to a passenger to help figure out where they are. "I had been chewing gum so vigorously that the hinges of my jaws would ache for two days." Stumbling on a grizzly bear in a blueberry patch (fortunately upwind), he muses on the best way to survive a grizzly's charge - no consensus of opinion, but most survivors believe the best thing to do is stand absolutely still and shout as loudly as possible, for that is the least likely reaction the bear, which does not have good sight, would expect of game. Running away is useless for grizzlies are very fast. They are also quite coordinated. They enjoy schussing down snow-covered mountains at 96 feet/second through trees and around boulders only to screech to a stop, stand up and walk away, just before going -over the edge of a cliff. The second part of the book discusses the Alaskan government's search for a new capital and the conflict that generated. Juneau really makes a lousy site because of its remoteness, not to mention its horrible landing approach to the airport. Alaska attracts very independent and anti-authoritarian types of people so it witnesses a battle between those suffering from the "Sierra Club Syndrome" or others fondly embracing the "Dallas Scenario." Many of these folks are affectionately profiled in the third section. John Cook, for example, has consciously tried to eliminate the need for money and authority. He tries to live on $1,500 a year (this was written in the mid seventies); he has a series of trap lines and rarely uses a parka, even at -30'. The closest town is Eagle, about 30 miles away via dog sled, with a population of about 100. Almost all live by the ut restrictions on code, "Never put restrictions on any individual.... Up here they ain't gettin' you for spittin' on the sidewalk."Ironically, most moved there for the space, yet land is less available (as of 1977) than in the lower '48 because when Alaska became a state deals were made with the native Americans and the federal government to set aside almost the entire state as either a reservation or park land. Whereas before statehood someone could build a cabin 80 miles from nowhere, now a government helicopter might fly over and throw them out. Homesteading no longer exists, but in Alaska that loss seems especially poignant in territory where you might have to fly somewhere to take a shower.


Despite flaws, this ultimately leaves me with a wonderful picture of Alaska and its people. It was written in 1977, and I am eager to hear how things have changed or not changed and what was the outcomes of some of the events that were current when McPhee did his research.This book has 3 sections. In the first McPhee describes a trip he took through beautiful backcountry.It has lovely descriptions of the land but was oddly boring.If I had not been planning a trip to Alaska I might have aborted. The second section is all about the plans to move Alaska's capital. I had never heard of the initiative, which was approved by the voters, and it never happened. Very interesting. The third section is disorganized but very interesting, a series of character sketches about the many unusual people who inhabit the Yukon, centering on Eagle, Alaska. I was left with a much better appreciation for the many disparate world views and got a better appreciation for all of the people's opinions on how to handle the land: preserve for the public, allow capitalism and exploitation of natural resources, return to the Indians, etc.


I have read and admired John McPhee's writing in the New Yorker, but this is the first book of his I have ever read. Extremely well-done. I didn't love the middle part about the capital of Alaska but I loved the first and last section. I came away feeling that I knew Alaska and its people. I love a writer who can make me feel as if I have traveled to a place and gotten to know the people who live there.

Rex Fuller

The Country lies around the upper Yukon River. The book induced aching for it. This one work teaches more about Alaska than any other source I know: Statehood demeaned Alaska, the Native Claims Settlement Act made a well-intentioned wreck, and the pipeline contorted it in good and bad ways that will prove insignificant over time. Most of all, the book made clear how painful the federal government's interference is to "whites and Indians alike" of The Country.

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