“Coming Into the Country”

23 Dec

I should probably stop reading books about Alaska. They make me want to see it, bad. I just finished “Coming Into the County” by John McPhee this week. I chose to read it mainly because I’d heard it’s his best. I haven’t read any of his other books, but I was not disappointed by this one.  I found not only the subject—Alaska and the people who live there—fascinating, but also his reporting and writing style. The nonfiction book weaves character sketches, profiles, geography and history seamlessly into one cohesive, 400 plus page narrative.

Unlike some narrative nonfiction writers, McPhee stays out of his story. I found this puzzling, and I think I know why. In the 40 years since McPhee published the book (It was published sometime in the 1970s; I’d have to look it up to find the exact date), nonfiction exploded while fictions, meanwhile, all but died. McPhee was one of its early pioneers, doing things with language and stories that hadn’t been done much before, exploring real people and real places not in a pedantic, textbook way but in a way that puts the reader right there in the story, too.

Nonfiction writers today often insert themselves into their story, making themselves a character in the plot and telling it through the prism of their own thoughts, observations and feelings. I would say writers of nonfiction books do this more often now than not, which is why I expected it of McPhee. Think Ian Frazier or Bill Bryson, for example. But when I consider the era he wrote it in, this, perhaps, was not so widely accepted as it now is. Journalists didn’t enter their stories, and if they did, they did it quick and jumped back out again. Which is what McPhee does. Incidentally, I thought the parts where he puts himself in the story were one of the most enjoyable, and wished he’d done more of it. Maybe he would have if he wrote it in the twenty-first century, but maybe not. I have a feel that’s just his personality, to stay in the background and tell the stories of others.

The reporter in me kept wondering how he did his reporting. I am curious about the nitty gritty logistics of it all. He rented a cabin in Eagle, Alaska, clearly for a long time—judging by all the people he must have interviewed. But, I mean, how did he know how long he was going to stay for? How did he approach people? “Hi, I’m John, and I’m writing a book about Alaska.” How did he get people to trust him, to overcome their own insecurities about being written about in a book—not just a magazine or newspaper article—but book? Did he even tell them? How did he get such fantastic access? Surely, though, his notebook gave him away if nothing else. Yet I read something recently that said he hung out with a guy for a week, never took notes and still, according to his subject, “pretty much got everything right.” Incredible.

I plan to read his other books now, too.

In other news, I discovered a wonderful blog about journalism by Beth Macy, a writer for the RoanokeTimes in Virginia: http://intrepidpapergirl.com/.


2 Responses to ““Coming Into the Country””

  1. Grayquill December 23, 2011 at 7:29 pm #

    You have made me want to find a copy of Coming into the Country.
    Good post… Merry Christmas

  2. slippedink December 23, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

    I think you’d like it! Merry Christmas to you, too,

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