Bad land : an American romance by Jonathan Raban
London: Picador, 1997 ISBN 0330346229
Sometimes a book happens upon you by chance. On a recent journey I stopped at a town on the way to my destination where I knew there was a second-hand bookshop. The second-hand book business has undergone radical changes in the last ten years, and it's rare to find a good second-hand shop outside the major cities, so I always stop when I can to try and support those in regional towns. I had been to this shop many times before and usually have found something I've been looking for. This time however there was nothing that said "buy me"... but I couldn't leave empty handed. Thus, the book under review here, picked up for a measly $3, bought because I have heard good things about Johnathan Raban's writing.
And what a well-written book this is. Through several inter-connected narratives, Raban tells us the sad story of the homesteading movement in Eastern Montana, from the early 20th Century through to the present (1996). It is a story of hope, deceit, struggle, defeat, and survival. It is a quintessentially American story, but an American story that resonates half a world away here in Australia.
The story starts with railways. Unlike Europe, where railways were constructed to join population centres, railway construction in the United States was an entrepreneurial venture, with the railway opening up new land for settlement. Obviously for the venture to succeed the railway companies needed lots of settlers, to create town and farms that would use the railway: the government liked these schemes as well, as settled land meant more people, more taxes and so on. This circle of needs drove the railways ever westward, and led the Government to give the railway companies carte blanche to "sell" their vision of paradise how they saw fit. And sell it they did.
The land around Eastern Montana was divided up into 320 acre lots and initially given to those who would settle it, with payment on easy terms only after several years had gone by, and once the settler had made certain "improvements" to show that they intended to stay. The only problem is that Eastern Montana was known as the "desert" - no trees apart from twitsted junipers, and not much rain either....how to solve this problem? Simple, hire a huckster scientist to write a book that showed that by using his method, water would be stored in the ground and "capillary action" would enable wheat and other crops to thrive. Add to that the notion that "rain followed the plough", and the problem of farming in such marginal country would be solved.
On this basis hundreds of potential homesteaders flocked to Montana, and at first things seemed to go well, good season followed good season, and those who stated that the rangeland was only good for grazing seemed to have got it wrong. On the basis of what had occurred, and in the face of easy credit, many homesteaders borrowed money to purchase equipment and take the next step toward independence.
Unfortunately for the homesteaders, the next step was taken by Mother Nature: a series of dry years and harsh winters sent many of them to the wall, and much of Raban's book describes what happened to those that left, and to those that stayed on. The families that hung on eventually reached some sort of stability, if not affluence. The key to survival was to increase the size of your holding - many times over if possible - and to let the land dictate how you farmed it, rather than impose any ideological or "scientific" theories. The families that left mostly headed further West, to the big cities (Seattle, Portland), or to the richer land around the Rockies.
Raban tells this story through many mini-stories - of Evelyn Cameron, an early homesteader, who with her photographs began to make sense of a countryside that was very foreign to the mostly European settlers; of the Woolastons, who came from the Midwest and initially did well before moving closer to the Rockies where working for the government secured a more stable living; and Art Worsell, who ended up in a Seattle flophouse after fleeing the plains.
Raban dwells on some of the ironies that abound in the history that rests between his pages. How the Government encouraged bold individualists to go and settle the rangelands, and then tried to homogenise them via schools, and by trying to tell them how to farm the land. The homesteaders resisted being told what to do, and their descendents still do now, even though in many cases they rely on subsidies and import taxes from the Government to survive.
The end of the book dwells on the Oklahoma City bombing and the Unabomber, both recent events as the book was being written. Raban, in his time in Montana and with the descendents of the original homesteaders feels he has some glimmering of an understanding of why there seems to be, in the West, a deep distrust of government and a belief that there is a conspiracy from the big end of town against the small man. The whole homesteading experience that was sold to the original settlers was a big lie, a conspiracy between the railway company and the Government at the expense of the people who chose to move West. This experience has coloured several generations of people not only in Montana, but every part of the West that the failed homesteaders moved to. Raban believes that incidents such as the bombings may have their source in this easily fanned distrust.
Raban's writing is excellent: his descriptions of the countryside in particular - how it would have looked before World War I and how it looks now - are vivd and engaging, and he injects a real humanity into the people he describes, even when it's clear he doesn't agree with their views or actions. Reportage at its best.
Even though this book is about a fairly obscure topic, I can honestly recommend this to everyone as just a great book to read.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell