John McPhee's writing is some of the most straightforward, even honest writing we have read this semester. Throughout his novel, Coming into the Country, McPhee maintains a strong, straight-ahead style of writing, pushing the story forward and slipping in anecdotes that almost always directly relate to the situation the travelers have found themselves in. This technique helps the reader grow comfortable with the writer and the story. One rarely feels as though McPhee is trying to confuse us with his stories, or that McPhee may be less than totally honest in describing a certain situation. This style is much different from fellow travel writer Bruce Chatwin who often utilizes strange and seemingly disjointed anecdotes in his writing to move his story forward.

Pourchot was apparently unaware that he was addressing a what-if type — an advanced, thousand-deaths coward with oak-leaf clusters. If I wanted to, I could always see disaster running with the river, dancing like a shadow, moving down the forest from tree to tree. And yet coming to grips with the problem may have been easier for me than for the others, since all of them lived in Alaska. Risk is everywhere, but it is in some places more than others, and this was the safest place I'd been all year. I live in New Jersey, where risks to life are statistically higher than they are along an Arctic River.

Fedeler pointed out that on the back of Alaska fishing licenses are drawings of a signal system for people in trouble who are fortunate enough to be seen by an airplane. I looked at my license. It showed a figure holding hands overhead like a referee indicating a touchdown. That meant "Please pick me up." A pair of chevrons, sketched on the ground, was a request for firearms and ammunition. An "I" indicated serious injury. An "F" called for food and water, and an "X" meant "Unable to proceed." [92-93]

The idea of the Alaskan wilderness being a less risky area of the world than is New Jersey seems like an absurd statement at first. McPhee actually documents how dangerous Alaska can be earlier in the novel when he and the others become lost in a helicopter. However, McPhee's writing puts the reader at ease. The reader is eventually convinced that the protocol for flagging down a search party is as routine as waking up in the morning because of the no-nonsense approach to the story McPhee employs.


1. Throughoout the book, McPhee's stories are extremely vivid and his ability to visually portray the Arctic wilderness is impressive. What type of visual imagery does he use in this passage and is it effective here? Would more imagery be helpful, perhaps giving more details about the ways people can be rescued on the tundra?

2. Do we believe McPhee that New Jersey is statistically more dangerous than Alaska?

3. How does McPhee turn this relatively strange anecdote into something that seems relatively normal and not jarring to the reader?

4. Would Chatwin have approached this situation about these symbols on the back of the fishing license differently? How so?

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Last modified 8 November 2007