John McPhee’s intention in Coming into the Country is to provide the reader with a sense of what it was like to live in Alaska in the 1970’s. People had moved into the state in large numbers, but they were clustered in the south, around Anchorage. The pipeline had brought oil wealth and, temporarily, construction jobs, and it had affected the natives’ way of life; nevertheless, it had not otherwise made a permanent impact on the landscape or the people. New laws, the most important being the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, had changed the ways in which people thought about the state. Still, the tremendous wilderness, marked by huge, almost unknown rivers and towering mountain ranges, was hardly marked by man’s presence. The terrain, the climate, the isolation made it seem almost impossible that large numbers of people would ever survive for long in the country.
At the same time, however, social and economic problems long familiar in the lower forty-eight states were becoming increasingly a part of Alaskan life. The political squabbling over the site of a capital was like political haggling anywhere. The native populations were undergoing drastic changes in life-style. They had been forced to change to a cash economy from a subsistence economy; employment on the pipeline had given them the money to buy motor boats (replacing the canoes and kayaks of tradition) and snowmobiles (to replace the dogsleds). The old skills eroded, but their traditions had not given them the skills to repair their new machines when they broke down in the harsh terrain. In one of his few direct comments, McPhee writes, “Alaska’s booms denature the natives.” Much later in the book, he is more scathing: “For all its overt benefits and generous presentations, the bluntest requirement of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was that the natives turn white.” They had come increasingly to depend on welfare and other government programs. Settlers from the lower forty-eight had brought their own ideas of what Alaska and its natives should be and were often at odds with one another, the Indians, and the federal government.
McPhee is fully present in his essays as an observer and participant. His voice is carefully neutral, the voice of the interested onlooker, always willing to learn, recording what he sees and hears. He reports without comment the negative comments made by people from Anchorage about the state capital of Juneau, and he does the same with comments from Juneau...
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