John McPhee's challenge in writing Coming into the Country, it may be said, was to find and expose the commonalities between the outsiders and pariahs of Alaska — the wanderers seeking an escape from the paradigms of Lower Forty-Eight society — and ourselves. It was no small task. There are times in the book where the hardships and extremities of life in the Yukon Territory are isolating and incomprehensible; others, when they are processed as mere spectacles, legends that seem impossible to fully believe. But in this passage, McPhee exlores the idea of a persistent thread of humanity that makes all human life recognizable, whether in 60 below weather in Alaska or 90 degree Hawaii. The following passage takes as its subject Elva Scott's medical services, but its overriding message is of the myths that make up society, the repeated stories and caricatures shared by neighbors and friends, the ways that communities rely on each other, and the compassion between those with common experiences and fears.

In Eagle, she runs, in effect, a clinic in her kitchen. She does preventative work that is paid for by the state, but most of her effort is donated. With a health aide in the Indian Village, who has had six weeks' training, Elva has all of the medical experience that is available in Eagle. The hospital in Fairbanks is three hundred and eighty miles away by road, an hour and twenty minutes through the air. When Charlie Juneby, in the Indian Village, had an emergency last year that resulted in a kidney transplant in Seattle, a red signal was sent out of Eagle on the medical satellite system, interrupting an agricultural program coming in from New Zealand. Fairbanks failed to catch the signal, but someone in Hawaii did, and telephoned Alaska. In the black of night, a plane came from Fairbanks, and Eagle was ready with flares all around the landing strip and headlights at either end. Juneby was in Seattle nine hours after the signal.

People like to sit and listen to the satellite — to the medial problems of all of Alaska. Their own they take to Elva. Her couches and chairs are often filled with fundamentalists, river people, bootleggers, and Indians. Old Sarah Malcolm sits there — with moosehide in her lap, sewing — absorbing at least ten times what she pretends to understand. Louise Paul, short and solid, saying nothing, is said to be the matriarch of the Indian Village. Archie Juneby — tall, slender, handsome, with a dark ponytail — drank too much last night with his brothers and smashed up Max Beck's boat. They come to Elva. Elva goes to them. She knits her day through the Village and the City.

In a way, McPhee contradicts the proclaimed goals of the people living in Eagle. If it was their hope to live fully self-sufficient lives, they have failed. They are reliant not only on Elva and the stories and companionship of the other Eagle residents, but also on Hawaii. Still, McPhee writes with no malicious intent; it is only the expression of recognizable scenes that interests him.


1. What is the significance of the fact that Hawaii heard Juneby's signal for help? How might things have been different if the state that saved Junbey had been in the "Lower Forty-Eight?" How could McPhee have used that fact to criticize Eagle residents?

1. McPhee makes use of many commas in his sentences, both crafting sentences around the use of commas and inserting them when they aren't totally necessary. How does this change the tone and speed of the content, especially in the first paragraph of the passage?

2. Do the people McPhee names really exist? Are they just caricatures representing the shared stories and knowledge among the people in Eagle?

4. How is McPhee's use of characters to describe a place similar to Chatwin's? Didion's?

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Last modified 8 November 2007