Bad Land: An American Romance

by Jonathan Raban

Hardcover, 1996

Call number

978 RAB



Pantheon (1996), 324 pages


A New York Times Editors' Choice for Book of the Year Winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award Winner of the PEN West Creative Nonfiction Award "No one has evoked with greater power the marriage of land and sky that gives this country both its beauty and its terror. " --Washington Post Book World In 1909 maps still identified eastern Montana as the Great American Desert.  But in that year Congress, lobbied heavily by railroad companies, offered 320-acre tracts of land to anyone bold or foolish enough to stake a claim to them. Drawn by shamelessly inventive brochures, countless homesteaders--many of them immigrants--went west to make their fortunes. Most failed. In Bad Land, Jonathan Raban travels through the unforgiving country that was the scene of their dreams and undoing, and makes their story come miraculously alive.     In towns named Terry, Calypso, and Ismay (which changed its name to Joe, Montana, in an effort to attract football fans), and in the landscape in between, Raban unearths a vanished episode of American history, with its own ruins, its own heroes and heroines, its own hopeful myths and bitter memories. Startlingly observed, beautifully written, this book is a contemporary classic of the American West. "Exceptional. . . .  A beautifully told historical meditation. " --Time "Championship prose. . . .  In fifty years don't be surprised if Bad Land is a landmark." --Los Angeles Times… (more)

Media reviews

(Entire Review)From Drought to Dissent in the Western Plains In the present-day West he explores so engagingly in his new book, ''Bad Land: An American Romance,'' Jonathan Raban meets many people hostile to the Federal Government. These dissenters are not only extremists like the members of the Militia of Montana who refuse even to look at him as he eats breakfast in the Landmark Cafe, ''evidently the regimental mess,'' in Noxon, Mont.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
This is the story of one of the last homesteading opportunities of the American west. A hundred years ago a railway was built from Chicago to Puget Sound, across the great, unsettled expanse of North Dakota and Montana. Now railroads need customers and so "The Big Open" was advertised as a great opportunity, with homesteads carved from what previously only held a few ranches. New, scientific farming methods were sure to bring prosperity to all who farmed there. By the middle of the Great Depression, the land was almost as empty as it had been before the homesteaders arrived, the decaying towns and abandoned farmhouses the only evidence of what had once been.

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.
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LibraryThing member listorama
Being a railroad nut, I greatly enjoyed this historic look at railroads in Montana and how they promoted settlement, often without much regard to "truth in advertising." Many dreams were shattered as a result of the raising of false hopes about the fertility of the land, suitablity for grazing, presence of sufficient rainfall, and the like. A mood of sadness pervades the text.

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.
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LibraryThing member mapconsultant
Excellent! Will be easy to read this a second time.
LibraryThing member maneekuhi
"Bad Land" is the first book of Q2, 17th of the year, rated 2 1/2 roses. So what's the book about - the author answered the question this way - Montana. Homesteads. Deserted Houses. The empty prairie. Dry farming. You know......I would add: early 1900's, failure, survival, weather, 160 acres, toughness, independence. It's NOT history, it's almost a collection of interwoven essays. It's unusual......but at times it was also boring - it didn't work for me. But it won an NBA (pub 1996), and received excellent reviews from all the right places. So I understand Montana a bit more than I did before reading this, but I ain't itchin' to go see it.… (more)
LibraryThing member dele2451
Very interesting history of the settlement of the desolate prairies of Montana. A definite recommend for anybody interested in the history of the railroads, farming in the US, immigration, Montana, settlement of the plains and later the Pacific Northwest, etc.
LibraryThing member Jared_Runck
Like Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," I still can't really tell you what this book "is" or why I liked it so much. I suppose its most proper generic category would be "cultural geography," which is really a short-hand way of saying travelogue/memoir/biography/political history.

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.

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LibraryThing member mldavis2
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction, this book on the history of the railroads and settlers in Montana earns its ratings. Partly history, partly a travelogue across desolate and partially abandoned territory, author Raban does a good job of writing and holding the reader's attention as his journey unfolds.… (more)
LibraryThing member Aetatis
Evocative and compelling.




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