Coming into the Country

by John McPhee

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Coming into the Country does not have characters in the conventional sense, as the book is not so much a progressive narrative as it is a semi-scholarly description of a place. As such, it does not have set protagonists or antagonists, but rather ordinary people who constitute the life and activity of the state. The characters who make up this panoply of Alaskan life are the Eskimos, residents, Indians, governments, and corporations who constantly break the frontier into various zones to be used for distinct purposes.

Many characters in the story are set up to extol Alaska’s magnificent environment. McPhee’s opening chapter, in which he reminisces about looking down the Salmon River, puts on display the splendid beauty and abundance of Alaskan wildlife. The water of the river is clear, crashing over rocks as it streams by, the circular-shaped salmon are in high abundance, and the Alaskan bears come out to feast on their prey. The natural characters here that McPhee is using serve to highlight the serenity of the wilderness. Furthermore, McPhee contraposes this serenity to the ugliness he associates with certain of the detached human inhabitants of the state. Walter Hickel, for example, current governor of Alaska, makes his home in Anchorage, and McPhee bemoans its drabness in comparison with the surrounding nature: “Hickel’s is a heavy, substantial home, its style American Dentist.” McPhee then goes on to claim that the neighborhood itself struggled to maintain an air of affluence but not “to find Alaska" (pg. 134–135).

Several other of McPhee’s characters—the indigenous populace, government contractors, construction workers, and heavy machinery operators, articulate around a central theme of the book—the drilling for oil in the Alaskan landscape. McPhee is actually somewhat approving of the process, and his description of the Alaskan natives, how they endeavor to protect the aesthetic beauty of their homeland, proves incompatible with the demand for development and improvement over nature. In fact, surprising “characters” that makes an appearance in the story are the 55-gallon steel drums, full to the brim with freshly extracted oil, that are plentifully distributed across the frontier land. McPhee almost waxes poetic in his appreciation for the way in which they have changed the image of the Alaskan landscape: “Gradually, they become tolerable, and then more and more attractive. Eventually, they almost bloom" (pg. 411). This might seem to be an unexpected observation, but McPhee is here making a larger argument regarding Alaska’s beauty, which can be perfected only after prolonged human engagement.

These and other characters make their presence felt in Coming into the Country, but they all more or less contribute to painting a general picture of the Alaskan wilderness, its beauty, and its ability to be conquered.

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