John McPhee, in Coming into the Country, is careful to distinguish Alaska from the "lower forty-eight," creating an exotic land of a state far removed from the rest of the country. McPhee is a traveler from New Jersey-a place which would have contain twenty-five people to represent the sparse population of Alaska-who carefully highlights that even within the United States, he becomes a foreigner in his own country. Fighting forces of modern convenience and living with the land are important themes in McPhee's work, and the individuals living in Alaska often struggle to test their own limitations.

The people of the Kobuk are among the few Eskimos in Alaska whose villages are well within the tree line. They have a culture that reflects their cousinship to Eskimos of the coast and that borrows also from the Indians of the Alaskan interior. The combination is unique. . . .

They may use Eagle Claw fishhooks from Wright & McGill, in Denver, but they still know how to make them from the teeth of wolves. They may give their children windup toys, but they also make little blowguns for them from the hollow leg bones of the sandhill crane. To snare ptarmigan, they no longer use spruce roots-they use picture wire-but they still snare ptarmigan. They eat what they call "white-man food," mainly from cans, but they also eat owl soup, sour duck, wild rhubarb, and the tuber Hedysarum alpinum-the Eskimo potato. Some of them believe that Eskimo food keeps them healthy and brown, and that too much white-man food will turn them white. . .

Breakfast in the frying pan-freeze-dried eggs. If we were Kobuk people, one of us might go off into the watery tundra and find fresh eggs. Someone else might peel the bark from a willow. The bark would be soaked and formed into a tube with the eggs inside, and the tube would be placed in the fire. But this is not a group of forest Eskimos. These are legionaries from another world, talking "scenic values" and "interpretation." These are Romans inspecting Transalpine Gaul. Nobody's skin is going to turn brown on these eggs-or on cinnamon-apple flavored Instant Quaker Oatmeal, or Tang, or Swiss Miss, or on cold pink-icinged Pop-Tarts with raspberry filling. [32-38]

McPhee, as a foreign visitor, inevitably views the Kobuk people as the categorical other. In comparison to Chatwin's portraits of Patogonian natives in his book In Patagonia, McPhee takes his own position as an outsider to this culture and then turns a critical eye upon the outsiders who speak of "scenic values" and "interpretation". McPhee's narrative observes the Alaskan way of living, but realizes that his observation is tainted by how a foreigner sees it. McPhee makes no attempts to disguise his own weakness in this country-at one point struggling with a decision to reveal his need for a pillow to sleep on-but instead places himself in the context of the land. McPhee does not judge these natives for turning to modernity, but instead praises their ability to retain vestiges of the past. McPhee's narrative creates a picture of Alaska through positioning multiple perspectives of struggling forces of foreign influence and traditional customs.

Questions

1. How do McPhee's usage of the pronoun "they," and his descriptions of the natives, differ from Chatwin's treatment of Patagonian natives?

2. What is the effect of McPhee's critique on his group of travelers? Why does he criticize them so harshly with descriptions of being "legionaries from another world"?

3. does McPhee's usage of specific details serve to prove his point? Was McPhee's usage of brand names like Quaker, Tang and Swiss Miss meant to eventually seem outdated and thus as strange perhaps as the Eskimo potato Hedysarum alpinum?

4. How does McPhee's knowledge of the Kobuk people serve to provide him with a legitimacy or ability to provide both perspectives, both as a native and a foreigner? Do you think McPhee is being genuine in his criticism of his own people?

5. How does the natives' response to foreign influences and modernizing techniques reflect or contradict the pioneers who enter Alaska searching for a return to nature?


Victorian Web Overview Victorian courses

Last modified 8 November 2007