Thursday 20 September 2012

Bad Land

Earlier this year I read Willa Cather's great novel of prairie life My Antonia - and was amazed, a little later, to discover a crossover with the life and work of the quintessentially English J.L. Carr. All is explained here...
Shortly after, someone recommended that, if I was interested in the settlement of the prairie (and who would not be after reading My Antonia?), I should try Jonathan Raban's Bad Land. I'm sorry to say that I can't recall - and seem to have no record - who that recommender was, but I now send heartfelt thanks their way. I've just finished Bad Land, and it is a wonderful book. Mixing history with reportage, travelogue, reconstruction and personal narrative, Raban tells the story of the homesteaders who came to settle on the all but unpopulated prairies of Montana in the teens of the 20th century. Encouraged by government incentives, the blandishments of the railway companies and the spurious science of 'dry farming', they came out in high hopes, and the weather gods initially smiled on their endeavours with a rare succession of rainy years. Lulled into a false sense of security, the homesteaders began to spend and borrow and expand - and then, in the Twenties, normal weather resumed, farming became all but impossible, homesteads were abandoned and the disillusioned settlers trekked west in search of work and water...
Raban tells the story through the histories of individual families, whose later members are his guides around the abandoned lands and into their still recent ancestral past (Raban's book dates to 1996). He also focuses on such remarkable characters as the pioneering photographer Evelyn Cameron (a shame my paperback edition had no illustrations, but there's plenty of Cameron's work online). As he returns to the present, Raban also traces the ominous lines from the great 'betrayal' of the homesteaders to their 'bad-blood descendants', the paranoid survivalists, the militias and bombers.
Bad Land is an impressive feat of vivid and hugely readable storytelling, infused with affection and respect for the people whose story it is. Though himself irredeemably urban and liberal, Raban is clearly stirred and moved by the land and the people he encounters and by their extraordinary history. He does them proud.


  1. I'm "Susan from New York" & I'm delighted that you appreciated "Bad Land" as I felt sure you would when I recommended it to you.

  2. PS -- The internet is such an enjoyable web. Recently while in New Hampshire I went to an exhibit of infrared photographs. If you Google "Fading Places" you may be able to see some of the photos of abandoned buildings, this time in New England. It seemed especially vivid to me having read "Bad Land" so recently. (The artist is Guy Biechele.
    Susan from NY

  3. Ah Susan - so it was you! Thanks again for the recommendation - and the Guy Biechele link - what extraordinary images - such a great idea to use infrared. I guess those new England farms will soon have disappeared into the landscape as completely as the Montana homesteads...

  4. So glad you enjoyed that.
    Our family is struggling to hang onto our property in southwestern New Hampshire. It hasn't been a farm in over 100 years -- my grandfather bought it in 1910 & we celebrated our Centennial two years ago. It's now a "Land Trust" owned by 11 cousins of two generations. The central part of the frame year-round building was built in about 1790.
    Our part of New England is full of beautiful houses built between c. 1780-1830.