Friday, March 4, 2011

Jonathan Raban, Bad Land

Montana Week concludes with this fine, informative, and entertaining book about the homestead experience in eastern Montana during the years 1910-1925. Raban has done considerable historical research to bring to life this period of boom-and-bust western expansion.

It is well written as any good novel, introducing us to the families of those who went west to fulfill the Jeffersonian dream of independent Americans living off the land. That the promise built into this national myth was, in fact, mythical is part of what makes this account so deeply moving and fascinating.

Raban finds and interviews the descendants of those homesteaders and reconstructs a time and place and way of life that flourished, as long as the rains fell. Then it disappeared as soon as the next cycle of drought set in.

The book is based in great part on a then unpublished memoir by one settler, Percy Wollasten, and the recently published photographs of a local photographer, Evelyn Cameron. (Both books are now in print. Click the authors' names to find them at amazon.)

Mildred, east-central Montana, photo by R Scheer © 2011

Meanwhile, driving around the area in the 1990s in his rented Jeep, Raban also records vivid observations of the rural world that now exists there. The remains of the old one have been subsumed into large, modern cattle ranches, where rambling homes are revealed to result from the assembling of many separate abandoned ones.

Raban offers a broad sweep of history. His picture includes Teddy Roosevelt's progressivist vision of America as well as the profit-driven schemes of the railroads. These championed westward settlement with pseudoscience and false advertising. 

Eastern Montana, between Mildred and Ismay, photo by R Scheer © 2011

And it extends into the Dust Bowl years and the next Roosevelt administration. From there, Raban follows the many "starved out" and disillusioned homesteaders who pulled up stakes and moved yet further west in search of sustainable lives. This journey takes him across Montana to the Columbia River Basin in central Washington and to modern-day Seattle, where streams and city streets flood with rain and snow melt.

This is an excellent book for anyone with an interest in the American West, especially the collision between national myth and actuality. Raban attributes rural westerners' deep distrust of government, "progress," and urban liberalism to the memories of betrayal left in the wake of failed homesteading. There is even a place in his argument for the Unabomber, whose arrest while he travels through far western Montana, marks the extreme of this disaffection.

Bad Land is available at amazon and AbeBooks.

Coming up: How to write like Zane Grey


  1. I read this book about 10 years ago on the recommendation of a friend. I never forgot it - a really excellent book. I should read it again.

  2. Love this blog... interesting stories about, and pics of, classic Americana.