Coming into the Country

by John McPhee

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Alaskan frontier is a place of majesty and ecological wonder, where courageous men and women settle into life habits that might seem bizarre to people who inhabit the more urban milieu of civilized society. But there is still much to be discovered about the lives of the Alaskan natives, who on a daily basis encounter an environment altogether alien to foreign observers. It is this lifestyle to which John McPhee dedicates his book, Coming into the Country. His narrative follows the Alaskan wilderness through some of its most iconic and picturesque scenery. For example, McPhee describes what a trip down the Salmon River would be like, while meticulously describing the territory between two cities of Central and Eagle. Furthermore, he also investigates the efforts of Alaska’s indigenous population and political activists to preserve this territory and prevent it from being destroyed under the auspices of federal land management. But Alaska is a place where strong, tough-minded people fight for what is rightfully theirs, and McPhee expresses this adroitly when he says “Bravado . . . is a synonym for Alaska" (pg. 99).

McPhee is not categorically opposed to human intervention in the Alaskan landscape; in fact, he seems to laud the improvements that development of the frontier might bring to Alaskan inhabitants. For example, the construction of the 9 billion dollar Trans-Alaskan pipeline, one of the biggest construction projects in American history, is not seen as ecologically detrimental, but rather as an opportunity to tap Alaska’s long-hidden resources. By installing the necessary infrastructure to exploit this underground oil, McPhee argues that Alaska can finally provide the United States the economic independence (in regard to energy) it has always been seeking. Furthermore, the discovery of oil in Alaska—of a quantity even in excess of the massive reserves earlier found in Texas—set the state up to serve as a hallmark of American identity. Technology seamlessly penetrating the intransigent Alaskan frontier is a symbol of the triumphant narrative of American western expansion.

Throughout the book, McPhee’s descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness, everyday life, and the politics of the state are excellent. The reader is given as clear a sense of the variety of wildlife they are likely to encounter in Eagle as they are the deliberations that took place within the Capital Site Selection Committee over the issue of what city should serve as the Alaskan capital. It is written with a warm, friendly prose and will make even the most reserved reader fall in love with Alaska’s peculiar charm.

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