Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022
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 about Anchorage. In the section on Eagle, he shows the differences in opinion among the residents, but he seems not to choose among them; only in the bitter comments about white men’s treatment of the native population and white men’s ignorance of Indian ways do his own attitudes show.
At the same time, McPhee comes through as a real personality. This is most clear in the frequent and detailed references to and descriptions of bears—black, brown, or grizzly. He describes how bears live, how the natives hunt bears, how the white men hunt bears; he tells stories of men killed by bears; he describes admiringly the state flag, with its bear symbol. In the opening section, McPhee and another man, hiking away from their campsite, must make a long and exhausting detour to get back to their party because they happen upon a feeding bear. At the very end of the Eagle section, there is a long passage in which McPhee describes his feelings when he must make a long trek alone through territory where signs of bear are everywhere. He remembers the story of the geologist recently killed and partially eaten by a bear. He wonders whether his determination not to carry a rifle, against the strong advice of some of his friends, is not stupid. He manages to avoid panic and gets to his destination. Awe, fear, and admiration are joined in his descriptions.
As a counterbalance to his admiring respect for the natural world, McPhee describes the ways in which Alaskans have managed to survive in this beautiful but hostile environment. He provides detailed accounts of the building of dwellings, the kind of food people eat and how they obtain it, the clothes they wear. One family has a yard filled with the wrecked remains of machines of all kinds; the yard looks like a scar on the landscape, but in fact it is a storehouse of parts and metal which the ingenious owners will use in repairing or building other machines. McPhee gives what is virtually a hymn of praise to the fifty-five-gallon oil drums, which are present wherever men are found and which are such a staple of life that they become almost beautiful.
McPhee makes it clear that the problems of Alaska and its future are not simple. Implicitly, he shows that he is more of a preservationist than an exploiter, but when he describes the efforts of a father and son to harness a stream and use its water to tear up ground in search of gold he admires their cooperation and skill and says that they are part of what he would choose to preserve. His admiration for people is seldom total. The people of Eagle whom he otherwise admires are almost entirely insensitive toward their Indian neighbors: “Within the flow of general disdain, about all that seems interesting is the recurrent implication that the troubles and shortcomings of the Indians are based on their not adequately thinking or acting white.”
Except for his travels with the capital-site-selection committee, McPhee seems to have avoided the population centers in his Alaskan experiences. He shows considerable scorn for Anchorage, a city not readily distinguishable from Indianapolis or Albuquerque. He respects the lower-level government officials who are helping to decide which areas of the state should be set aside as wilderness, but his real admiration is for the people who have come into the country on their own and who have somehow found ways to survive. The people he lived among are the people of Eagle. With all of their faults and quirks, they are for McPhee the true Alaskans.