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Bad Land: An American Romance Paperback – October 7, 1997

4 out of 5 stars 78 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Jonathan Raban ambles and picks his way across the Montana prairie, called "The Great American Desert" until Congress offered 320-acre tracts of barren land to immigrants with stardust in their eyes. Raban's prose makes love to the waves of land, red dirt roads, and skeletons of homesteads that couldn't survive the Dirty Thirties. As poignant as any romance novel, there's heartbreak in the failed dreams of the homesteaders, a pang of destiny in the arbitrary way railroad towns were thrown into existence, and inspiration in the heroism of people who've fashioned lives for themselves by cobbling together homes from the ruined houses of those who couldn't make it. Through it all, Raban's voice examines and honors the vast open expanses of land and pays homage to the histories of families who eked out an existence.

From Publishers Weekly

Raban (Old Glory), an Englishman now settled in Seattle, has written a vivid and utterly idiosyncratic social history of the homesteading movement in eastern Montana that went boom and bust during the first three decades of this century. It is the story of a dream turned sour that still echoes in the western American consciousness. Lured by free land from the government and a deceptive publicity campaign mounted by the local railroad, thousands from all over the eastern United States and northern Europe went to Montana to make their fortune as farmers. Raban follows the stories of several families, most of which end in heartbreak. He examines the literature that lured them there and the how-to books they read once they arrived. He tells the story of an early photographer, a woman, who recorded life on the prairie. He covers the weather, the homegrown school system, the early bankrupting fad of replacing horses with tractors, a Depression-era town built by the WPA and?most recently?the failed attempt of the dying community of Ismay to revive itself by changing its name to Joe, Montana, in the vain hope of luring football fans. Raban combines his personal experiences during the two years he traveled in Montana with historical research to argue that, given the land and the weather, the homesteading scheme was doomed to failure. The legacy today, seen most dramatically in the anti-government militia movement, is the belief, rooted in family memory, that government and big business conspire together against the little folk. This seemingly informal yet careful blend of chronicle and personal reportage is social history at its best.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 7, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679759069
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679759065
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #348,002 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This is one of my favorite books...it really brought to life for me the odd mix of idealism and severe hardship of our midwestern settlers. Raban's style of story telling is relaxed and detail oriented, but once I'm into it, it has a life of its own....the writing is just incandescent. I could really imagine myself trying to get my family through a minus thirty degree winter with the wind howling through my thin wooden house, and hardly any food in the pantry. It seems that Raban's British sensibilities may have caused some unsatifying stereotyping of Montanans among his readers, but I didn't read this book to get a politically correct viewpoint. I read it because as much as any writer working today, Raban is able to let me experience the situations he is writing about. One of the very few books I have read twice.
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Format: Paperback
This very well written book is an excellent expression of how geography, history, and psychology (at an individual and group level) are completely intertwined with each other. The author does a wonderful job of telling the bleak and often heartbreaking stories of the early homesteaders of the Montana badlands. He traces the history of some of these families to the present day and even "follows" some of those who pulled up stakes and moved further west. Throughout the book one continuously senses the overwhelming influence of the vast "great American desert" and how it shaped the lives of the people who tried to make a living farming it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
My only complaint is that a particular 20-30 page section of the book makes extensive reference to photographs which sound as if they would have added a great deal to the reader's experience of the book. Unfortunately, the author is describing HIS experience of looking at the photos - none are included anywhwere in the book - and I found myself wishing I could take a look at them too.
The last rather minor complaint aside, I considered this to be an excellent book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone.
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Format: Hardcover
The world, it seems, is replete with images of the American West. In the age of film and television you don't have to have been born in the United States to recognise the iconography of long, stretched shadows from sunsets slipping through the buttes and prairieland of Montana or Wyoming or Utah. The book Bad Land by British-born Jonathan Raban, therefore presents nothing new, until, as it does, it scratches at a little of that image, through the dry high-plains dirt and grime to reveal the people behind the landscape; the flesh and lives and stories of individuals who endured the cold, the wind, the loneliness. Raban's exquisite descriptions of the Montana terrane of the late 1800s reflect the almost fruitless attempts of immigrants to tame those wilds. Having lived and worked in Montana I found the portrayal of this region disturbing; not because of its inaccuracies (they fit almost exactly with my memories) but with how little the landscape was really changed by those honyockers (homesteaders).
It is evident that the book was not just researched, it has been lived. Raban over many years travelled from his home in Seattle, Washington to those sand washed prairie beaches of central and eastern Montana. One feels his ghost intermingling with the spirits of last century as he slips in and out of roofless, sundried timber cabins set in the tall, mostly snake filled grasses of abandoned ranches. If there is fault in this book, it is that it sometimes slips too far into the minutiae of the lost lives of people, who we somehow feel, we never or could never have known; these are people so unlike most of us - willing to rush headlong into something we can not fathom.
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Format: Paperback
Bad Land: An American Romance, by Jonathan Raban, is at once informative and poetic, starkly beautiful and bleak, sympathetic yet harsh, heartbreaking yet enjoyable, historic yet immediately relevant, personal yet broadly relevant, regional yet universal, factual yet romantic (even surrealistic). In sum, this book is a masterpiece, and richly deserving of its many awards. If you want to understand the landscape and life of the American west (particularly the Montana/Dakotas area), you should read this book. In fact, if you want to gain a better understanding not just of the west, but of AMERICA (particularly rural America, but also many of the prevailing myths and values which have permeated or at least influenced ALL of America) itself, you should read this book.
Bad Land first and foremost is a book about land. Specifically, BAD land, in many ways. Harsh, unforgiving, stark, cold, lonely, dry. Never enough rain. Or too much at once. An at-best marginal ("semi-arid") land for farming that greedy people (mainly the railroads) used to lure naïve (or desperate, or bored, or restless, or ambitious, or crazy, or idealistic) immigrants to with printed glossy brochures, distributed all over the United States and Europe, translated into German, Russian, Italian, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish,etc., and filled with romantic pictures of "free, rich farmland" with such "attractive details, that readers would commit their families and their life savings, sight unseen." And come they did, by the thousands, homesteaders ("honyockers") lured also by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 (passed "after a great deal of lobbying by the railroad companies"), out to make their fortune in what was touted as practically a land flowing with milk and honey.
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