Coming Into The Country, by John McPhee
This book is a somewhat lengthy discussion of three different aspects of Alaskan existence. Although I have traveled to Alaska, I must admit that I am not very knowledgeable about its ways, although I have a few friends who have lived there and could probably have more to say about the sorts of deep divisions that Alaskan society has. I must say, though, that in general much of the sort of division shown here is something that I can relate to as someone with a generally strong knowledge of the divisiveness of life in rural America and the wellspring of ambivalence there is about government and identity in many parts of the United States outside of the big cities. Alaska does seem, at least in this book, to be a very small world, and small worlds have a great degree of similarity in that they bring out the pettiness and fractiousness of people to a greater extent than is evident when one looks only at human beings en masse. If this book was definitely not my favorite by the author, it certainly provided, as always, an entertaining look at people the author happens to be spending a lot of time with.
This nearly 450 page book is divided into three parts that explore different aspects of the Alaskan experience. In the first book, “The Encircled River,” the author goes on an adventurous kayak adventure in one of Alaska’s many Salmon Rivers, surrounded by the Brooks Range in northern Alaska and dealing with people as varied as forest Eskimos and government employees who want to protect large swaths of Alaskan wilderness as well as the possibility of harm from Alaska’s massive grizzlies. The second book, “What They Were Hunting For,” is a rather grim and self-absorbed look at Alaskans hunting for a location for a new state capital, arguing about the dominance of Anchorage, and demonstrating a distinct lack of interest in the rest of the world outside of their large but remote state, which at times almost seems like foreign territory for all it knows or cares of the lower 48. Finally, the third book, “Coming Into The Country,” examines the divisions and rivalries among a group of people who have mostly left behind their life in the lower 48 and come to live in Alaska seeking homesteads, quarreling with the government while sometimes seeking public aid, and worried about politics and religion and questions of identity.
Indeed, as a whole this particular book demonstrates the ferocity of identity questions when one looks at Alaska. A wide variety of people seek very different things in coming to Alaska, including space from others even while remaining dependent on logistical chains going to larger cities, political power in a small world where it does not take much to be a big fish (and this even before Sarah Palin), and a desire to create a somewhat anarchical society with little money that is funded by government largess due to the oil wealth there, as well as an unspoiled wilderness free of anyone but themselves to sort out boundaries and questions of who deserves the landfalls to be received from the exploitation of the Alaskan wilderness and its resources. I must admit that I do not find the Alaskans to be all that different from the people I grew up around, and I was pleased to find so many interested in books despite the difficulties of collecting books in such remote territory. If Alaska is a bit cold and remote for my tastes, the tensions of Alaskan society are only slightly more exaggerated than those of most rural areas in the American west or south, for similar reasons of colonialism.