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Coming into the Country Paperback – April 1, 1991

4.5 out of 5 stars 98 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Residents of the Lower 48 sometimes imagine Alaska as a snow-covered land of igloos, oil pipelines, and polar bears. But Alaska is far more complex geographically, culturally, ecologically, and politically than most Americans know, and few writers are as capable of capturing this complexity as John McPhee. In Coming into the Country, McPhee describes his travels through much of the state with bush pilots, prospectors, and settlers, as well as politicians and businesspeople who have their eyes set on a very different future for the state.


“It is a reviewer's greatest pleasure to ring the gong for a species of masterpiece.” ―Edward Hoagland, The New York Times Book Review

“Justly celebrated…By showing us what Alaska is like, McPhee reminds us of what we have become.” ―The Washington Post Book World

“What is really in view in Coming into the Country is a matter not usually met in works of reportage . . . nothing less than the nature Of the human condition.” ―Benjamin De Mott, The Atlantic Monthly

“McPhee has acted as an antenna in a far-off place that few will see. He has brought back a wholly satisfying voyage of spirit and mind.” ―Paul Grey, Time

“With this book McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America.” ―Editor's Choice, The New York Times


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition (April 1, 1991)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374522871
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374522872
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #31,089 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James D. DeWitt VINE VOICE on March 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
Lots of writers have tried to convey Alaska to non-Alaskans. Few have succeeded. Those who have are the ones who have chosen to illustrate small parts of the larger whole, and selected the right parts. Margaret Murie comes to mind. But 16 years on, Coming Into the Country is still the best.
I own and have read everything McPhee has written. I subscribe to New Yorker mostly for the annual or biennial piece by McPhee. I like the geology series very much, and parts of Birch Bark Canoe still make me laugh out loud, but Country is his best book.
McPhee's many gifts including finding and understanding interesting, compelling people, and writing about them eloquently and non-judgmentally. He uses those people and what they say to convey his larger themes. Stan Gelvin and his dad, Willie Hensley and, of course, the folks in and around Eagle. He somehow wrangled a seat on the state capital relocation committee's helicopter. He somehow charmed the irascible Joe Vogler into candor. I talked with Vogler - who has since been murdered in a gun deal gone bad - about McPhee's interview, and he told me that McPhee took no notes during interviews over a week, and yet "pretty much got it right."
I've lived in Alaska most of my life. I've read the gushy stuff (Michener, for example), the political diatribes (Joe McGinnis, for example), and the gee-whiz tourist fodder. McPhee, instead of trying to paint the whole state, paints a series of miniatures which give you a much accurate glimpse than the writers and hacks who try to "describe" Alaska.
Maybe it's that America's best non-fiction writer brought his special tools and skills to the right opportunities; maybe it's just luck. It all came together in this book.
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Format: Paperback
In the mid 1970s, John McPhee turned his powers of description toward Alaska at a time when the "Alaskan way of life" was under siege. Alaska had been a state less than 20 years. The claims of natives to the land had been resolved by putting millions of acres in the hands of native corporations. The old "tradition" of immigrants to the land being able to plop down and build a cabin almost anywhere was disappearing under the burden of new regulations. Huge new national parks were designated, and at the same time the pipeline was being constructed, highlighting the old conflict between development and ecology, between preservation and self-determination.
Sadly, the Alaska that McPhee wrote about no longer exists. In the first segment, he writes about the Brooks Range wilderness, and discusses the controversy around establishing the "Gates of the Arctic" National Park there. That park is now established. In the second segment, he writes about the aftereffects of the decision to move the state capital from Juneau to somewhere north of Anchorage. That move never occurred. In the third (and longest and most compelling) segment, he reports on the lives of the people of isolated Eagle, Alaska, a town that today boasts a fax machine.
The third segment is where McPhee's writing really shines: I don't think anyone has ever conveyed the personality of Alaska and Alaskans as well as McPhee has. My favorite was the story of how one man and his son managed to get an entire C9 Caterpillar bulldozer into the middle of nowhere, clearing their way through 70-foot winter drifts, to set up a gold dredging operation. McPhee conveys the extreme beauty and wildness of the place, and the fire and determination of the people to belong to it.
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Format: Paperback
In the late 1970's my mother and father were inspired by John McPhee's Coming Into the Country to the point of venturing out onto the open highway. I was but two years old, headed across America, from Georgia to Alaska, towards Eagle, the tiny community that McPhee discusses with a keen eye in the third section of his book. I spent my childhood in that community and it would not be until I was fully grown that I would actually read his book. Just a couple of years ago, when I was attending college in Georgia, I became homesick for Alaska and decided to read the book that had been so impressive to my parents. I was amazed by McPhee's way of seeing the truth in something foreign to him -- how he described the people of Eagle. I highly recommend this book to all those who wish to venture into the land of Alaska, whether in their actual travels or in their imagination.
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Format: Paperback
Again and again we hear it, but it's true: John McPhee can interest a reader in anything. He manages to combine a richly sedimented prose, which frequently rises to a level of virtuosity of which 95% of novelists would be envious, with a tangible involvement in the activities of the people he writes about. And he does always write, first and foremost, about people. 'Coming into the Country' is McPhee's longest single book and contains about ten capsule biographies (and quite a bit of modest autobiography, too) in addition to observations on the hibernation of bears, the various techniques of panning for gold, the advantages of sled-dogs against snow-machines, the failings of bush-pilots, and three-dozen other disquisitions.
Without wishing to carp, I do think that the book is a shade too long -- the final section 'Coming into the Country' could profitably have been pruned of about forty pages -- but the greater length does allow the reader to see the effort McPhee goes to to provide his stories with an aesthetically pleasing structure. The first section, 'The Encircled River' deposits us, in medias res, halfway down a tributary of one of Alaska's northenmost rivers. McPhee and his companions travel downriver to the confluence of a larger river, and then we head back to the headwaters of the earlier river -- the story describes an encircling pattern. The second part 'What they were looking for' is a very funny record of a helicopter trip taken by a committee established to decide on a new capital for Alaska. Here the story skips around the theme as the chopper skips around proposed sites for the new metropolis.
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