Other than having an overabundance of Danish bacon and mosquitoes intent on molesting their neighbors, Mcphee's lodgings with the Gelvins seem like an ideal solitary retreat. Mcphee takes a moment in his travel narrative to stop and observe his surroundings alone outside the borrowed cabin, remembering past visits to the yard. Defining the exact angle of his chin needed to see the North Star, Mcphee chooses a unique way to associate himself geographically with Alaska and its natives. His sentences become less specific in their details as Mchpee slowly alters verb tense throughout the paragraph, pulling the reader into the experience with him.

When I have stayed with the Gelvins, I have for the most part occupied a cabin toward the far end of the airstrip — a place they acquired not long ago from an old-timer named Curly Allain, who was in his seventies and went south. He had no intention of returning, but he left his cabin well stocked with utensils, food, and linen — a tin of coffee close to the pot, fifty pounds of flour, five pounds of Danish bacon, firewood in three sizes stacked beside the door. Outside, some paces away, I have stood at a form of parade rest and in the broad light of a June midnight and been penetrated in the most inconvenient place by a swarm of indecent mosquitoes, and on the same spot in winter, in a similar posture at the same hour, have stared up in darkness from squeaky snow at a green arch of the aurora, green streamers streaming from it all across the sky. At home, when I look up at the North Star I lift my eyes but don't really have to move my head. Here, I crane back, lift my chin almost as far as it will go, and look up at the polestar flirting with the zenith. The cabin is long and low, and its roof is loaded white — mantled eighteen inches deep. Its windows are brown-gold from the light of burning lamps. The air is so still I can hear the rising smoke. Twenty-two degrees below zero. Balls of ice are forming in the beard. I go back inside and comb it off, and jump into a bag of down. [301-302]

As nice as most of this paragraph sounds, particularly the bit about jumping into a bag of down, it seems disjointed and confusing in its purpose and train of though. In other parts of Coming into the Country, Mcphee often jumps from topic to topic without much notice, and the reader is forced to follow his mental rollercoaster. This paragraph is no exception, but has even more to offer with its treatment of ownership, of both beard and cabin, and its quiet ambivalence to Mcphee's experience.


1. Why write "the beard" instead of "my beard"?

2. What does Mcphee do to the concept of ownership with respect to the cabin in this section? What does it say about Alaskan culture?

3. Can the phrase about indecent mosquitoes distract the reader? Does it punctuate that Mcphee observes his surroundings alone?

4. What might the last two sentences be doing in this paragraph (Mcphee creates an abrupt change from the relaxed, quiet night, to "jump" into a bag of down, and back again to the weight of snow on pine branches in the next paragraph)?

5. How would this passage be different if Chatwin wrote it? Which details would Chatwin alter or exclude (would indecent mosquitoes and the angle of the narrator's chin be included)?

6. Mcphee uses the phrase "old-timer," but than goes on to tell us that the man he refers to was in his seventies. Would Mcphee be using old-timer in a derogatory sense?

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Last modified 13 November 2007