BAD LAND by Jonathan Raban

BAD LAND

An American Romance

KIRKUS REVIEW

 As seen in the punning title, travel writer Raban (Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America, 1991, etc.) adds a second, more sinister meaning to the legendary Montana-Dakota stretch of the Great Plains. Raban focuses on the town of Ismay, Mont., and its role in a seldom-discussed chapter of the modern American West. Ismay's settlers were lured by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, by misleading advertising by railroad companies, and by pseudoscientific claims about the benefits of dry-land farming. Before long, however, this inhospitable land had wrecked the hopes of these latter-day homesteaders. Instead of the American Eden they were promised, they encountered something more akin to the Egyptian plagues: subzero winter temperatures, dust, dying cattle, large grasshoppers, and above all, scant rainfall. Raban skillfully evokes the landscape's stark immensity, which defeated the attempts of photographers who tried to transform it into a romantic panorama. As settlers gradually deserted Ismay, they left behind signs of their failure, so that when Raban passed through, ``for every surviving ranch, I passed a dozen ruined houses.'' Yet Ismay, conceived by advertising, still could not resist making a bundle off a promotion, as seen in a hilarious recounting of its attempt to recast itself as a tourist trap by renaming itself Joe, Montana, after the quarterback (who is neither native son nor resident). Ultimately, Raban produces a startling revision of traditional Western myth: not the hopeful cowboys and farmers so often found in children's school primers, but solitaries, religious zealots, and even sociopaths. In Randy Weaver, Theodore Kaczynski, and Timothy McVeigh, Raban discovers spiritual descendants of the homesteaders in ``their resentment of government, their notion of property rights, their harping on self-sufficiency, and self-defence, [and] in their sense of enraged Scriptural entitlement.'' A powerful, grim new slant on those who took the way west--and of the terrible consequences when their dreams curdled and died. (First serial to the New Yorker)

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-44254-5
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1996




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