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Coming into the Country

4.21  ·  Rating details ·  5,105 Ratings  ·  241 Reviews
This is the story of Alaska and the Alaskans. Written with a vividness and clarity which shifts scenes frequently, and yet manages to tie the work into a rewarding whole, McPhee segues from the wilderness to life in urban Alaska to the remote bush country.
Paperback, 448 pages
Published April 1st 1991 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1977)
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Alaska, the early 1960s. Darkness covered the land. The latest winter storm, which by then had already lasted half a century, still showed no sign of ending. The cold and the snow were beginning to wear the proud Alaskans down. Then Russia invaded. Again. The fledgling state was unprepared for war, and so the Alaskan Militia fell back before the forces of the Dark Lord Stalin, and the Red Army of Moscow reached the walls of Juneau. For two days and nights the city was bombarded by communist orcs ...more
May 10, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-nature
Things I learned about Alaska:

-- Merrill Field, a light-plane airfield in Anchorage, handles fifty-four thousand more flights per year than Newark International. This is so because bushplane trips are more common than taxis or driving, the roads being what they are.

-- Fried cranberries will help a sore throat.

-- That somethings are better left unchanged or not re-named:

"What would you call that mountain, Willie?"
"Denali. I'll go along with the Indians that far."
Everyone aboard was white but Will
Mar 25, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: salmon
Shelves: own

I was really hoping this would be about geology, along the lines of Basin and Range. It wasn't. It's divided into three sections; in the first, McPhee wanders around unpopulated Alaska with several other men in several canoes/kayaks. I think one was from the Sierra Club, one from the Bureau of Land Management, etc. They fished to supplement their food supplies, and camped along the rivers and streams. The second section was about the attempt to get Alaska's capital moved from Juneau. I now know
Nov 18, 2009 rated it liked it
This book has meant a lot to me as an Alaskan interested in the raggedy interplay between development and conservationism, although I had never read it in its entirety. Now I have. I would say this book at best offers a kind, sympathetic view of all sorts of Alaskans circa 1977, a period which I just barely remember from grade school. I still recall the statewide debate on whether to give "Mount McKinley" the new/old name of "Denali" as part of ANILCA, then called the D-2 Lands Bill, which was a ...more
Feb 27, 2012 rated it it was amazing
McPhee's Coming Into the Country is rightly considered a classic with its detailed description on life in mid-1970s Alaska. Much of the writing is stunning, packed full of river trips and anecdotes about characters the author encountered during his many months in the country. He captures well the contradictions embodied in many Alaskans: a thirst for solitude alternating with a an affinity for social gatherings, an abhorrence of government even as they live and trap on public land, and the spars ...more
Feb 22, 2009 rated it it was ok
This book was a challenge for me. McPhee divided his exploration of Alaska into three sections--the first, stage-setting section on the northern tree line; the second, uses the search for an ideal site for a new state capital to explore urban Alaska; and the final section, on "the bush," really focuses on the motives and lifestyles of in-migrants to the state. I breezed through the first two parts; the relocation of the state capital (which never happened) in particular was literally a bird's ey ...more
Clif Brittain
Feb 13, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I love McPhee's writing. I first read this book when it was published in part in the New Yorker, and again soon after it was published as a book. So this is the third time I've read it. I've read maybe ten books three times, so I really, really like this.

First, because McPhee writes so beautifully. He could write about anything and I would read it. I've even read his geology books. Not because I like geology, (I don't), but because I just eat up his words. It is like eating chocolate, I usually
Rex Fuller
Jun 29, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Country lies around the upper Yukon River. The book induced aching for it. This one work teaches more about Alaska than any other source I know: Statehood demeaned Alaska, the Native Claims Settlement Act made a well-intentioned wreck, and the pipeline contorted it in good and bad ways that will prove insignificant over time. Most of all, the book made clear how painful the federal government's interference is to "whites and Indians alike" of The Country.
Jul 19, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this book in the mid-80's. I was encouraged to read it by a friend who had lived in Alaska in the early 80's and knew some of the people mentioned in the book. I remember I liked it and found it interesting but I don't remember too much about the details.
Aug 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, nature
“What had struck me most in the isolation of this wilderness was an abiding sense of paradox. In its raw, convincing emphasis on the irrelevance of the visitor, it was forcefully, importantly repellent. It was no less strongly attractive—with a beauty of nowhere else, composed in turning circles. If the wild land was indifferent, it gave a sense of difference. If at moments it was frightening, requiring an effort to put down the conflagrationary imagination, it also augmented the touch of life.
Dec 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel
“If anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be the place to hid it." What a vivid way to describe Alaska's immensity. 'There has been a host of excellent books on Alaska. My favorite until recently was Joe McGinnis's Going to Extremes but John McPhee's Coming Into the Country is wonderful, too.
McPhee's book is divided into three parts: first an exploration of wilderness described during the course of a canoe/kayak trip down the Salmon River. Much in the manner of the river, his
Lisa (Harmonybites)
Oct 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Nature Lovers, Lovers of Americana, Those Who Enjoy Literary Journalism
Recommended to Lisa (Harmonybites) by: Ultimate Reading List - Travel
This book is about Alaska, at least circa 1976. Back then Alaska could boast a population of 400 thousand, of which 60 thousand were Native Americans. (As of 2011, Alaska's population had risen to 722,718.) Both then and now Anchorage boasted half the population. At the time Alaska became a state in 1959, the inhabitants hoped that would give them more control over their destiny--as McPhee explained, at the time only half of one percent of Alaska was in private hands--the rest was under federal ...more
Michael Finkel
Apr 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
John McPhee is one of my journalistic heroes. I read him obsessively when I was younger and yearning to become a journalist myself. This book, about Alaska, is perhaps my favorite, or at least the one I'd recommend to someone who has never read McPhee before. These days, when everyone seems to have a severely truncated attention span, perhaps McPhee can seem a touch long-winded, but I completely disagree -- I don't think he wastes a sentence. He does write in a pre-internet way, and that, in my ...more
Aug 09, 2009 rated it it was amazing
"'The proposals, up here, are for the future,' Kauffmann says, and he adds, after a moment, 'As Yellowstone was. Throughout the history of this country, it's been possible to go to a place where no one has camped before, and now that kind of opportunity is running out. We must protect it, even if artificially. The day will come when people will want to visit such a wilderness—saving everything they have in order to see it, at whatever cost. We're talking fifty and more years hence, when there ma ...more
Jo Deurbrouck
Traveling with John McPhee is always a treat, but this book is particularly dear to my heart because McPhee tries to capture a spirit and a mindset he thinks is quintessentially Alaskan. Can't fault him for that: he's from New Jersey. What he really captures is the Alaskan version of a mindset that is quintessentially Western and, because he's the kind of researcher who doesn't turn over stones without also tasting the bugs beneath, he does a gorgeously thorough, imminently readable job of it.
Margaret Moss
Oct 19, 2015 rated it really liked it
John McPhee has always been my hero and a writing mentor. He helped me form my definition of a good writer -- one who can compel a reader to continue reading something they would otherwise care nothing about.
Feb 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating book. Tather than focusing on what makes Alaska "wild", McPhee concentrates on the people that are living and working within this colossal landscape and why they've chosen to live here. This makes it a much more rounded and interesting rumination on one of the last frontiers.
Lisa Vegan
Nov 30, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone going to or interested in Alaska
I know this is practically sacrilegious, but this was my second favorite book I read before I traveled to Alaska in the early 80s. My favorite book was Going to Extremes by Joe McGinniss.
Leland William
Aug 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Occasionally random chance drops a masterpiece into your lap, and you can’t do anything but marvel at your good fortune. Coming into the Country is a collection of three short books about Alaska written by John McPhee in the 1970s.

I wouldn’t say I am particularly interested in Alaska (although, I am after reading this book!), and I definitely prefer fiction, but wow is this book good. There’s not much magic to it, McPhee is a masterful writer. This is the first book I’ve ever read by him, and p
Jarod Reyes
Oct 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: historical-faves
Coming into the country is my first introduction to John McPhee and I was blown away. He writes so plainly and with so little flourish that he as the narrator and first-person narrator at that, seems to disappear completely. It's a wonderful portrait of life in the bush of Alaska and it has never seemed more relevant. The characters in the book create drama to fill their quiet lives. They complain about big government and their constitutional rights on every turn. It was a reminder that at all c ...more
Sep 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Written more than 40 years ago, this book is an eye-opening portrait of Alaska when it was still a real wilderness area, before pipelines, global warming and Sarah Palin. :) McPhee's ability to get to know people and portray them in a kind yet honest fashion is particularly striking in this book, as he meets an entire potpourri of Alaskan types, from fur trappers and hunters to scammers and gardeners. He also has a remarkable understanding of the perennial politics of the state, and the tug-o-wa ...more
Josh Edge
Jul 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
It took me a long time to really get rolling with this book for some reason, but once I got to the personal stories and narratives surrounding the impacts of TAPS and ANCSA on land rights in Alaska, I binged the last third of the book in a day. It's amazing that this book was published 40 years ago, but the issues it delves into are still at the forefront today. The writing can feel a little dense at times, but ultimately it's a compelling read that I would recommend to anyone interested in how ...more
Kathy Desroches
Sep 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
I started to read this book on my flight to Alaska. I loved reading about the bears and remembered what I read when I had my first encounter. This book was recommended by some I know who knew some of the characters in the story. I found the book mostly mesmerizing but I only gave it 4 stars because there were times when it got a little long. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to know more about Alaska.
Cindy Wyatt
Jul 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
I went to Alaska 25 years ago and I was reading this book and I remember liking the book very much and enjoying reading about Alaska while I was in Alaska. This year, I went back to Alaska and decided to read the book again. What a difference 25 years makes - this time I did not enjoy the book at all! There are a few interesting stories/observations but the book drones on and on and it was hard to stick with it to the end.
Jun 16, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Outstanding writing. I looked forward to getting back to reading this book whenever I got the chance. Author was an expert at weaving in multiple story lines and thoughts with the smallest effort. Sublime bits of humor. A terrific book.
May 13, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book made me miss Alaska, where I was born and partly raised. Of any books I've read about the state, this does the best job of capturing life there, and the stubborn independence that characterizes the people.
Aug 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing
First two sections are some of the best non-fiction writing ever. Third section is still very good, but drags.
Aug 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those books that I'm not sure how you can even review it because it's basically perfect. McPhee at his brilliant best.
Oct 29, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I've enjoyed listening to other McPhees, but for some reason this one just seemed...dull. Maybe because it's so old that the people and issues he profiles at such length are largely dead?
M Sorensen
Jan 13, 2017 rated it liked it
Dark and grim feel. Didn't like it enough to finish it.
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more
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“George Sears, called Nessmuk, whose “Woodcraft,” published in 1884, was the first American book on forest camping, and is written with so much wisdom, wit, and insight that it makes Henry David Thoreau seem alien, humorless, and French.” 0 likes
“If you have to ask that question, you wouldn't understand the answer.” 0 likes
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