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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two years after reading it, I still can't forget it
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...
Published on December 12, 1999 by electrontom

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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Missed the Bigger story
Raban does not comment on the collapse of commodity prices after 1917, which is really what crushed these homesteaders. Further, the Milwaukee Road did not mislead anyone, as Raban seems to suggest, the land was, for a generation, lush; Montana produced nearly twice as much wheat per acre as Iowa, for instance, and it was considered a higher quality. This productivity...
Published on March 2, 2000 by Michael Sol


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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Two years after reading it, I still can't forget it, December 12, 1999
This review is from: Bad Land: An American Romance (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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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent blend of psychology, history and geography, June 12, 2000
By 
Buckeye (Harvard, MA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Bad Land: An American Romance (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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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The old and the new West revealed., April 27, 1998
By 
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. We travel with Raban not only eastward from Seattle but backward in time to view the west through such players as Evelyn Cameron and her amateur, but surprisingly surreal, photographs of the infant west. We walk in the shoes of the displaced and lonely; immigrants who were wooed by flashy railroad pamphlets that were spread all over Europe like so many modern day get-rich schemes. Some things, like the landscape, seem never to change.
Ultimately, bad land is a book about people. And the details of their lives are bought to life by Raban. Perhaps it takes a non-American to see a specialness in seemingly dreary, worn and weather-beaten people and land. For those wanting to know what the American West was and is now like, this book will be more than just a pleasurable read, it will beckon you to travel there and seek yourself.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stark yet romantic vision of America...haunting, September 30, 2000
This review is from: Bad Land: An American Romance (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. Of course, since this was patently not true, the vast majority of "honyockers" failed, and Raban is a master of describing people's romantic dreams, efforts, and - for most -their ultimate, heartbreaking failure.
But even more than a history, this book is a meditation on humans and their attempt to subdue (or at least coexist with) an uncaring, unforgiving, fickle nature. In a way, this book isn't even really about the American west per se; rather, it is about man - sometimes noble, sometimes greedy, sometimes clever, sometimes stupid, sometimes a loner or misfit, etc. And it is about hopes, dreams, individual lives, ghost towns, ghosts, aesthetics (largely of the vast prairie landscape, dirt, shadows, sunsets, and barbed-wire fences), fantasy, reality, myth-making, faith (blind and otherwise), technology, water, soil, and weather (among many other things). Incredible that Jonathan Raban is able to capture so much in one 358-page book; this was obviously a labor of love, one that Raban immersed himself in, and which you will find yourself immersed in as well!
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A land where humans tried to advance and are in retreat, October 31, 1998
By A Customer
This review is from: Bad Land: An American Romance (Paperback)
Raban writes about Montana, and the settlers who came happy but soon left, destitute and disillusioned at the harsh conditions. His comments can apply to the north of the state I live in (South Australia): the mountains and rangelands of the Flinders Ranges. This country was settled in the second half of the last century, on the hope of farming grain and sheep. There were a few years of plenty, then drought forced humans to re-think and retreat. Today the area is renowned for its natural beauty, but has the feel of an empty landscape, and the visitor wonders why. Plenty of local books describe the Flinders today, but it was not until I had read "Bad Land" that I had some understanding of the hopes of settlers, the intense persuasion to go, the reality, and why they decided to leave. Why is "Bad Land" an important book? Much is written about progress, and to-day people think that anything can be done. It is good to be reminded occasionally that there are places where enthusiasm, hard work, the latest technology, abundant finance, and even large amounts of land are not enough to make a go of it, and that humans are still for all their ideas about themselves subject to the forces of the natural world. The book reminds me of "Into thin air", which described a disastrous expedition to climb MtEverest, with many climbers killed by a storm near the summit. The mountaineers placed hope and faith in their technology and expeience, but forgot or were blind to their own frailty. It is interesting that the two books both came out at around the same time.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One reason no one likes JP Hill, June 22, 1999
By A Customer
Raban's such a good writer, I suppose I'd like any book he wrote (I'm going to find out shortly by getting hold of another). And that is the only reason I liked this book since the subject matter -- settlement of the Northern Plains around 1911 - 1920 -- does not, in itself, compel me. But then again, I didn't know much about it, and Raban very nicely introduced us. So many interesting things . . . how the drawing of the North Dakota / Montana state line around the 104th meridian split these otherwise similarly-sited people and diluted their political power; how the initial "wet years" of 1911 - 1914 gave such false hope, leading to such disillusionment, and eventually further emmigration west, as the "dry years" ensued and blew away their topsoil with their dreams; how they didn't wander into the area, but rather, were seduced into it by the railroads' (read JP Hill's) misrepresentation of the climate and land, the ease of "firming up" one's rather large homestead claim (hundreds of acres for a song), and the new "scientific" method of "dry farming" which promised to re-create the arcadia these settlers remembered from Europe. And I never thought much about hard it would be to build miles of barbed-wire-and-wood-post fences in a land without trees.
Raban argues that this suckering of the little people by the railroads/federal government accounts for the fierce anti-federalism of the seemingly-many up in that area today; that the memory has passed through the generations. So many other memories and ways of life have perservered there on the ranches and such, he may be right.
As to Paul Theroux, Raban says they have been friends for "decades." Raban's writing here is similar to Theroux's in the ironic and honest observations that help propel the narrative. But Raban never says anything like, "I felt like throwing the little old lady off the train."
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bad Land, an American Romance, June 16, 2001
By A Customer
This review is from: Bad Land: An American Romance (Paperback)
I want to than Jonathan Raban for this gift. I am 4th generation Eastern Montana and this is the most accurate portrait of this area I have read. As an outsider, he thought to describe things I had taken for granted as normal. It was fascinating to understand from an outsider, what this culture is like and what sort of reaction a visitor would have. His curiosity and openness are a delight, his humor dry. His descriptions of the country and culture that are my own were close and truthful. I benefited much from this reading in that I have come to understand more of what defines the culture I was raised in, and the awsome differences between that culture and the rest of the US. The book is of great value to anyone who knows the area of Eastern Montana that Raban describes. It is more important to the rest of the population. We live in a Nation that is quickly becoming without local identity. There are few cultures that have survived these changes. There is a need for us to know that there is an alternative to the materialistic shallowness and sameness of urban America. There is no GAP on the HiLine.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dreams Turn To Dust!, July 5, 2003
By 
Michael Murphy (Glasgow, Scotland.) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Bad Land: An American Romance (Paperback)
"Bad Land" is a captivating account of the great con perpetrated by the USA government and big business, working in cahoots, primarily against emigrants from Britain and Europe who were deceived by the prospect held out to them of a new life in eastern Montana as homesteaders farming free, fertile land. The reality was that the new railways running through the dry prairies of eastern Montana depended on passengers and freight for survival and this required the land to be populated and worked. The stark truth was that the promised land was dry and dusty, with little rainfall - land you couldn't grow a toenail on, totally unsuitable for farming. Unbeknown to the emigrants, they would end up owning "all the dust, rock and parched grass you could see, and more." Thousands of attractive, glossy brochures were distributed far and wide across the USA and Europe promoting the golden dream of riches and prosperity as being there for the taking, just waiting to be snapped up. James J. Hill, the notorious railway magnate, lauded the homesteader scheme as "opening the vaults of a treasury and bidding each man help himself." People were so taken in by the prospect of riches in the new world dangled before them in glossy "golden" presentations and pictures that they were prepared to uproot their lives and their families and risk their lot on "a landscape in a book." They had no conception of what they were letting themselves in for.

Raban is at his best re-creating the great adventure west to eastern Montana, his imagery of that vast, forbidding terrain capturing the landscape in all its moods. He recaptures the arrival of the emigrants by train, taking us into their lives as they try to live out their dream, building their homesteads, fencing their land, borrowing to fund the buying of stock, seed and gasoline tractors and struggling to farm their barren land. Raban brings to life the difficult years that followed the early optimism, reliving how the homesteaders - against the odds of the raking northwind, the cold of Montana "like a boot in the face", the dust, the dry land, the drought years, the dying cattle, the swarms of grasshoppers ("For every hopper killed it seemed like an entire family came to the funeral") - battled in vain to build a fragile, ordered world only to see it crumble rapidly around them within the space of a decade or so. Defeated, most homesteaders quit in the period 1917-1928 and headed further west. It was like coming out of a bad dream. Their bible, "Campbell's soil culture manual", the bestselling guide to husbanding dry land had proved to be a piece of absolute twaddle but too late, did the truth finally dawn that it was the "half-baked theory of a pseudo-scientific crank."

By the 90's, when Raban visited eastern Montana, the homesteads were reverting back to nature: odd fenceposts, rusty harrows and derelict houses the only visible remnants of the homesteaders' hopes and dreams. "Bad Land" could, and should have been, a pure, undiluted five star classic account of the homesteader's tragic experience and for the most part it is but it occasionally, irritatingly, strays into unnecessary technical detail and lengthy digressions on, for example, "Campbell's Soil Culture Manual", Photography, and Ismay's attempt to re-invent itself under the new name of "Joe" (Montana), rather than remaining firmly yoked to the central theme of the homesteader's tragic experience - the last part of the book is a further illustration of this kind of distraction. Still recommended though!
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Missed the Bigger story, March 2, 2000
This review is from: Bad Land: An American Romance (Paperback)
Raban does not comment on the collapse of commodity prices after 1917, which is really what crushed these homesteaders. Further, the Milwaukee Road did not mislead anyone, as Raban seems to suggest, the land was, for a generation, lush; Montana produced nearly twice as much wheat per acre as Iowa, for instance, and it was considered a higher quality. This productivity lasted from the Milwaukee's entry in 1905 through 1917. But, even if there had not been a drought beginning in 1917, the crisis would have happened when wheat prices dropped from over $2 a bushel to less than a $1.00, even as low as 63 cents, during a period of 100% inflation in farming expenses. Abundant rain would not have changed what happened to the Honyockers in Eastern Montana, and Raban, unfairly, did not point this important fact out. The collapse in commodity prices crushed the farmers more surely than anything else. Raban fails to note that during wet years that followed, in the early 20's, the banks kept right on failing, the remaining homesteaders continued to give up. All regions of American agriculture have had wet years followed by dry; the statistical record does not suggest that it was unusual that agriculture, anywhere, was affected periodically by unfavorable weather conditions such as drought; although Raban seems surprised, and blames the Milwaukee Railroad for this event. Raban tells an interesting story, and tells it well, but misread what actually was happening. And he didn't understand that transcontinental railroads such as the Milwaukee were looking for long haul freight. Hauling bulky, low value commodities was not the reason it built through eastern Montana. Good land, bad land, the Milwaukee built to Butte, Montana and to the North Pacific Coast to get long haul, high tariff traffic. Overall: very good writing, interesting story; bad research, faulty premise.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mr. Raban made me want to visit the Bad Lands!, April 8, 1997
By A Customer
On page one Mr. Raban writes: Brown cows nibbled at their shadows on the open range. I spent a great deal of time thinking about that...not wasting time, but enjoying time. The plains area of our great country has always interested me--not so much for the climate but for the appearance. The plains are continual, uninterrupted and meditative. Mr. Raban used words to describe the area in a way that paints a perfect image and makes one want to go there. He writes "it was so empty that two strangers could feel thay had a common bond simply because they were encircled by the same horizon." Just imagine!
I needed to reference my Webster's dictionary often. I highlighted all the new words Mr. Raban taught me. Words like: "polyglot" when describing the crowd on a emigrant train car.
For anyone longing to know about the Bad Land (Montana and North Dakota), how is was settled, the people and culture I recommend reading Bad Land.
Mr. Raban listed several publications that helped him complete his book. I ordered one called Photographing Montana 1894 - 1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron by Donna M. Lucey because I was intrigued by his description of her artistry and cannot wait to see it.
Thank you Mr. Raban for taking the time to research and write Bad Land: An American Romance
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Bad Land: An American Romance
Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban (Paperback - October 7, 1997)
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