McPhee is in the Details

Natasha N. Bronn '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2002

In his book The Crofter and the Laird, John McPhee takes us to the small Scottish island of Colonsay. He immerses us in the world of the misty, gray island where his ancestors once thrived, filling each page and thought with exceptionally detailed descriptions of the people, character, and scenery of the island. Through the warm and witty tone of Mcphee, the book acts as a genuine story of the lives of the past and present residents of Colonsay and is almost scientific in its meticulous record of nearly every detail about the island.

In one chapter Mcphee carefully notes the choice foods of the islanders:

They also eat the eggs of eider ducks, oyster catchers, and gulls-and often enough they eat the eider ducks, too, and shelducks, mallards, and pheasants. The pheasant population of Colonsay is probably ten times the human population, and one comes to recognize some of the pheasants individually, always foraging in pairs, models of fidelity, aging gracefully together, sometimes all the way to the table.

Mcphee further goes on to describe carefully describe landscape of the island from top of its hills:

The cairns at the summits of the hills appear from below to bas as large as fortresses, at the very least, but if you go up there and stand on them they are only piles of stones, roughly six feet cubed. Shepherd built the cairns for guidance in the mists. The best way to know the island whole is to climb to the cairns in clear weather. Seventeen square miles in eight minutes of latitude may be the next thing to nothing, but after and short time it becomes a continent. The hills, nearly all of them treeless, have the scale and appearance of mountain ranges, walling off one area from another in the way that mountains will divide two states or countries.

Mcphee's The Crofter and the Laird is an expertly crafted book in which each chapter brings us greater understanding and clearer picture of the life on Colonsay. Mcphee extracts actual dialogue and ancient Scottish history and lore to create, what appears to be, one the most profoundly research books I have yet encountered.

1. Mcphee paints a clear picture of life on Colonsay yet at points, such as in the above passages, he seems to bombard the reader with a great deal of description and names. Does this add to the book, or take away from its understanding? Is it important that we know the scenery of the island so well, down to its latitude?

2. Often times after a describing a particular resident of Colansay in his own words, McPhee will follow with a number of direct quotes from others on the island about the person reminiscent of a documentary. Why does McPhee do this? Does this format seem tired to the reader after a few chapters?

3. In one chapter Mcphee describes the men of Colansay as "cut rather disproportionately prominent figures against the sky" and that he has heard them say "with no note of daring or flippancy in their voices or any doubt whatever, that there is nothing an incomer could teach an islander. In this world, it is true." What does this say about McPhee's presence on the island? Is McPhee himself one of these "prominent figures against the sky" or will he forever be an outsider? Does this affect his ability to give us a true representation of Colansay and its people?


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Last modified 11 November 2003