Coming into the Country

Coming into the Country - John McPhee 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 control. After statehood, about ten percent of the land was bestowed on Indians by the Native Claims Settlement Act, and most of the rest designated to become national parks. As for what was left over, Alaska became a land caught between "the Sierra Club syndrome and the Dallas scenario." McPhee had a way of showing the tension between two ideals--development versus preserving wilderness. McPhee does this primarily by treating you to a guided tour of the quirky inhabitants both human and wild (not that there seems much distinction between the two much of the time.) People in the bush, particularly in Upper Yukon, refer to their part of Alaska as "the country." Strangers appearing are "said to have come into the country." And few Alaskans he tells us about are natives, but once were those strangers. The title essay takes up well over half of the book and focuses on the people of the Upper Yukon and especially those around Eagle Town (largely white) and Eagle Village (largely Native American.) Most of the people he features are trappers or miners. And surrounding them are salmon, grayling, grizzly, moose--and what a friend of mine once told me is the Alaskan state bird--the mosquito. (McPhee tells how one time he slapped his leg and counted 17 dead mosquitoes on his palm). In an interview of Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, he said that John McPhee is "a god... he's a master of that detail... of explaining how things worked... of making the world an interesting place." Coming from one of my favorite authors, that was high-praise--as it turns out deserved. What I noted right away is that McPhee has style. It may not be to everyone's liking, but it's there. There's a rhythm to his prose, a way of writing shapely phrases, and a lyricism probably helped along by two-thirds of this book being written first person, present tense. He often bounces between stories and personalities in a very meandering way. There are at times these free-floating quotations, like a chorus, giving you different sides. So this above all is literary journalism. It's also good journalism. Not only in the sense that it's lively and informative, but even though McPhee makes no bones about having his own opinion: he's also fair. Other views get to be aired too. Sometimes eccentric, very idiosyncratic views, but not ones simply straw-men chosen to show up the ridiculousness of the disfavored side. The book writes of a way of life more exotic to me, a Native New Yorker, than Beijing or Johannesburg. I find the lifestyle described more horrific than idyllic to be honest, not being one to rhapsodize nature--but it certainly was fascinating to read about in McPhee's hands. Even though this book is already decades old, I left feeling it I much better understood the state that's America's last frontier.