John McPhee's Coming into the Country, above all, is the story of how heartiness, naivete and delusion allow people to survive one of the harshest climates in the world. In unimaginably low temperatures, even for a seasoned northeasterner like McPhee, the Alaskans he comes across face the weather with a combination of bravery and unsound reasoning. In the passage below, McPhee describes a woman whose attitude towards the bitter cold is both foolish and fascinating.

For Donna Kneeland, as many as five months have gone by without a visit to Eagle, and much of the time she is alone in the cabin, while her man is out on the trail. She cooks and cans things. She grinds wheat berries and bakes bread. She breaks damp skins with an old gun barrel and works them with a metal scraper. A roomate she once had at the University of Alaska went off to "the other states" and left her a hundred-and-fifty-dollar Canadian Pioneer parka. She has never worn it, because--although temperatures have yet to go low enough to make her feel a need to put it on. "We've had some cool weather," she admits. "I don't know how cold, exactly. Our thermometer only goes to fifty-eight." When she goes out at such temperatures to saw or to split the wood she survives on--with the air at sixty and more below zero--she wears a down sweater. It is all she needs as long as her limbs are active. Her copy of "The Joy of Cooking" previously belonged to a trapper's wife who froze to death. Donna's father, a state policeman, was sent in to collect the corpse.

The style of writing in Coming into the Country, and in this passage in particular, most resembles that of Bruce Chatwin. Since they are both travel narratives, they both employ a combination of descriptive narrative, landscape observation, and character portraits. Like Wolfe and Didion, McPhee has a way of making characters who seem content with their lives come off as sad or misguided.

Questions

1. How much respect does McPhee have for Donna? How much respect does he want the reader to have?

2. What does this passage tell us about the interconnectedness of life in Alaska?

3. Does McPhee feel she is trapped here?

4. What effect does quoting "the other states have?


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Last modified 8 November 2007