Seduced by the government's offer of 320 acres per homesteader, Americans and Europeans rushed to Montana and the Dakotas to fulfill their own American dream in the first decade of this century. Raban's stunning evocation of the harrowing, desperate reality behind the homesteader's dream strips away the myth--while preserving the romance--that has shrouded our understanding of our own heartland.
Jonathan Raban, a transplanted Brit, explores the geography and the history of eastern Montana, learning about the kind of person who stayed through the worst of it and about the people who still remain. Bad Land is an intriguing combination of a social history and a contemporary look at the people who live there today. He's clearly fascinated by the place and it's impossible not to get caught up in the passion he feels for this difficult land.
I read the book in 1997 and after the passage of eleven years what I remember most about the book is an anecdote regarding Ismay, a tiny, isolated, farming town in southeastern Montana. Ismay, like many little communities, came into existence through the efforts of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. It is the site of a grain elevator. In 1993, in an attempt to draw tourists and their money, it renamed itself to "Joe," after football star Joe Montana. ("Hey, let's go to Joe Montana!") I have been to Ismay/Joe and walked along its handful of short streets. Sadly, for little towns off the beaten track, a gimmick name can't help much.
Just one complaint about the book---it lacks footnotes, a bibliography, and an index. This is an unforgivable shortcoming for such a work of non-fiction, thus the three stars.
What makes it so different from other histories is that the main character is a PLACE rather than a PERSON. And in an era of character-driven literature, such a focus makes this book both odd and oddly compelling.
It doesn't hurt anything that Raban writes with that remarkable verve and clarity peculiar to the British, though he's lived a good while in the USA. And it probably didn't hurt anything either that I also grew up on another patch of homestead territory, the south-central plains of Nebraska, once identified on maps as part of the "Great American Desert." If I replaced the name "Wollaston" with "Broeker" or "Bose," I'd be well-nigh telling stories of my grandfather's neighbors.
However, I think Raban's narrative is so compelling because he has uncovered here something essential to the American character...a kind of stubbornness both admirable and pitiable, a deep-set dreaminess that lives on after any particular manifestation of itself has gone bust. And, in that sense, the book becomes a crucial piece of "American" literature, destined, I believe, to a place of honor in the hall of American letters.