Bad Land

Jonathan Raban recaptures the unique ninety-year history of the Montana plains in a book that is part memoir and part history. The first settlers believed the pamphlets the railroads distributed to promote this arid land, and Raban re-creates the lives of people moving west, people who had read the propaganda and come to eastern Montana to live out their dream. However, after a few successful years, the normal weather—of inadequate rainfall and subzero winters—returned and drove the settlers west.

Some of the most intriguing parts of BAD LAND: AN AMERICAN ROMANCE take place in the 1990’s. Raban traces the results of the failure of the American Dream not only when it dried up in the scorching sun of eastern Montana in the early decades of the twentieth century, but also later, when the Unabomber and the Montana Freemen made headlines in the latter part of the decade. Raban links the first homesteading failure with the anger and frustration of contemporary middle America.

Yet Raban also sees the beauty of this land and admires those early pioneers, as he admires many of the more recent immigrants. The story of eastern Montana is a story of courage, and Raban tells it in a series of poignant pictures: the scene of the early settlers tapping their fence wire to make crude telephones to talk to each other, for example, or the image of an original homesteader’s mother “on her knees every day, crying and praying for rain.”

Raban makes the story poetic in his own vivid style, and in the metaphors he uses to carry this history, like the story of Evelyn Cameron. Cameron was an early British settler whose photographs of eastern Montana are some of the best that remain, for she first caught “the treeless breadth and vacancy, more space than place, of the nearby plains.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, November 15, 1996, p. 568.

Boston Globe. November 21, 1996, p. E2.

The Economist. CCCXLI, November 16, 1996, p. 6.

Library Journal. CXXI, October 1, 1996, p. 110.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 24, 1996, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, November 10, 1996, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, September 30, 1996, p. 66.

The Spectator. CCLXXVII, October 19, 1996, p. 47.

Time. CXLVIII, November 25, 1996, p. 118.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, December 1, 1996, p. 1.

Bad Land

From the spring of 1907 through the fall of 1908, the Milwaukee Road railroad worked its way through the Dakotas into eastern Montana. As the line advanced across the land, it created cities with unlikely names such as Ismay and Mildred. No one lived in these towns until the railroad agents distributed pamphlets all over the United States and Europe describing the fertile terrain, and the government—with the railroad’s help—passed the 1908 Homestead Act. Then the settlers came, by train, and settled on the land and filled up the towns. For the first years, the weather was good, the rainfall abundant, and the people prospered. After a few years, however, the land returned to its normal pattern of inadequate rainfall and sub-zero winters, and this area of the Great Northern Plains reverted to what it has also been called: the great American desert.

Jonathan Raban recaptures the unique ninety-year history of this piece of Western America in a book that is part memoir, part history, and always fascinating. Raban describes his own identity with this area in the opening chapter: how, as a British immigrant, recently resettled in Seattle, he finds a certain affinity with the refugees who migrated to this region. Driving through its inhospitable terrain, he finds the original ruined farmhouses, and in the parlor of one abandoned home picks up journals, letters, and schoolbooks that belonged to the first settlers. He returns to Seattle with these materials, and the research and writing begin—as well as the visits to the region where he can see what has happened to the survivors of this experiment in American homesteading.

The first settlers believed the railroad pamphlets and bought into the myth created in a book called Campbell’s Soil Culture Manual, which told them that they could be successful in this semiarid landscape, and the related theory of Louis Agassiz that rain would follow the plough (settlement would bring its own good weather). For the first few years, the theories seemed adequate. Raban imaginatively re-creates the lives of the people on the trains moving west, people looking for a chance to make it in America, people who had read the propaganda and come to eastern Montana to live out their role in the dream.

The extraordinary fertile benchlands around Ismay and Mildred promised adventure, space, nature, escape at the same time as they offered the comforts of village life with its intimate gossip and its twin guardians of church and school. To have a home with no landlord, no rent, no mortgage. . . . To be the lone ploughman of one’s own acres.

Here was another example in the long American tradition of Emersonian self-reliance acted out again and again through the nineteenth century as migrants pushed back the frontier. “They had bought into the idea of the West as the last refuge of the pioneering individualist (as the government had encouraged them to do).” The homesteaders built schools and churches, farms sprang up on the landscape, and communities grew. Then the weather turned. The early settlers did not realize that their success had been built on unnaturally good rainfall and a half inch of soil they soon exhausted.

Their history is also a chronicle of what has gone wrong with farming in America. The banks, betting on the first good crops, encouraged these early Montana farmers to mortgage their land. Then the farmers got hooked—as many other consumers in the 1920’s did through the new language of advertising—by the marvels of technology, and they began to invest in machinery such as tractors. The first years were good, but then the double attack of cold winters and lack of rain showed them what this land was really like. The normal cycle—including hail, cyclones, fires, and grasshoppers—returned. By 1919, the trains that had brought them in began to take them out. Not all at once, for some remained, in debt to the land and to their dreams of making it here. Those who stayed even survived the 1930’s and the Dust Bowl conditions of the Depression that wiped out so many other farmers across the Great Plains.

Those that left headed west again, and Raban follows them and finds evidence of them, in Great Falls, Montana, and then in Lincoln, and then in Thompson Falls (where he locates the graves of the Wollastons, one of the original homesteading families). Finally, he makes it to Wenatchee, Washington, an abundant valley where some of the original settlers found success. Continuing west, Raban reaches...

(The entire section is 1846 words.)