Coming into the Country Essay - Critical Context

John McPhee

Critical Context

Among the prolific John McPhee’s many impressive books, Coming into the Country must be ranked among the most successful. Like The Pine Barrens (1968), Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), and the trilogy of Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), and Rising from the Plains (1986), it deals with a part of the world or a set of experiences likely to be unfamiliar to his audience, and shows how man and nature interact in that exotic setting or unusual circumstance. At his best, McPhee always presents interesting human beings and makes their interests and emotions clear. In Coming into the Country, for example, he shows clearly the different kinds of relations between couples which exist in the harsh world of Eagle, and he does so entirely through dialogue and brief descriptions of action.

McPhee does not preach. His scorn for a particular type of human behavior or attitude may surface from time to time, but he never adopts a superior attitude, never condescends to the reader or to those about whom he is writing. He shows, in Coming into the Country, that different people have very different ideas about how to survive in a harsh land and that none of them is necessarily right or wrong, better or worse than another. What works for one person or for one couple might not work for another. What might seem insane to one person seems perfectly reasonable to another. The people who can survive in rural or small-town Alaska must have special qualities, and McPhee does not try to suggest that one set of qualities is better or more useful than another.

More than any of his other books, Coming into the Country permits McPhee to indulge his love of the wild, of a beautiful, harsh, unspoiled natural world. His admirable descriptive powers are used time and again, whether in showing the incredible setting of Eagle in its crevice in the Yukon basin, in silhouetting the Brooks Range against the blue Alaskan sky, or in evoking the indifferent but terrifying grizzly bear encountered on an otherwise routine hike. The finest achievement of Coming into the Country, however, is to show how, in small ways and great, human beings interact with this incredible land.