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

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.

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.)


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.


I'd easily put this in my top ten books ever read category, right up there alongside another McPhee book, Annals of the Former World. This book is written for folks like myself, that are obsessed with the ideal of living in Alaska, of getting away from it all, of the dream of escaping from a corrupt country, into a country that while in America, is definitely not of America. McPhee has some of the most wonderful prose I have ever read, and he tackles with it the three frontiers, all wild to different degrees: the political, the conservational, and the individual. The individual frontier being the most fascinating of all as he paints a living picture of the type of men that "don't fit in".

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.

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.”

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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.


Not a bad book, but its age means that, for me in 2013, it was not as good as it probably was on first publication (1976). It's well written and must have been interesting in the 1970's when the proposed national parks were being surveyed, and potential sites for relocating the caiptal were under consideration. But now it's really only interesting for the descriptions of the many types of Alaskans who make up the state, including the conservationists, the native americans, the make-as-much-profit-as-possible people, the live-in-the-wild people and many more, all living in the vastness that is Alaska.

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