John McPhee: Coming Into the Country

Book Review: Coming Into the Country, by John McPhee

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 18 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. The last bit, his walk down to the river and the growing worry, verging on panic, that this is wilderness, that a bear could be around the next corner, that he is not in control and can never be in control; the eloquence and the message are what makes Alaska. No one has described it better.

If you want to try to understand Alaska, its people, its politics and why I live here, this book is the best place to start. This book is a great writer’s greatest book.