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

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.


this book is a really amazing piece of writing and that is 100% because john mcphee is such a skilled storyteller. anything he writes is interesting, in my opinion. this is not a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat, you will definitely be able to put it down. a large chunk of the book is related to the political history of alaska and other legislative matters (this part took me the longest). if you have an interest in nature, the wild, unexplored land, and the people that seek these things, you will love it and should read it! the way he portrays alaska is honest in such a way that i know i have no idea what alaska is really like from reading a book about it.


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 As mentioned in other reviews, each chapter has been made quite out-of-date by events that have happened since publication.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.

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.


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.


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.


My family raves about John McPhee, but I wasn't thrilled with this book. I gave it a three star rating, but it was more like a 2 with some bits of 4's and 5's scattered throughout. Oddly, the parts I liked best were not about humans, but about grizzly bears. There's a lot of camping, fishing, airplane and boat jargon that I was too lazy to look up in a dictionary and therefore didn't really understand. The whole middle section is about differing views of where the capital of Alaska should be, and it just wasn't a subject that could hold my attention for 80 pages. There were some quirky characters and an amazing story of a guy who parachuted out of a crashing airplane into the mountains of Alaska in December and how he survived, but these kind of stories were interspersed amongst stretches of pages where I was constantly looking ahead to see how long until the end of the section. McPhee obviously has good writing skills, but the somehow the subject matter didn't get me excited, despite the fact that I have always had an interest in Alaska (fifth grade state notebook!)and one of my great friends lives there.

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.)

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 read this book in the mid-80's. I was encouraged to read it by a friend who had lived in Alaska in the early 80's and knew some of the people mentioned in the book. I remember I liked it and found it interesting but I don't remember too much about the details.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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