Bad Land by Jonathan Raban

Picador, McMillen: 1966
329 pp., $29.95
ISBN: 0 330 34621 0

Review by Ann Skea

Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)

"Then came an evangelist, riding a horse with whom he was evidently on uneasy terms.

'Woe! Woe! Woe!' he shouted, like George Fox calling down the wrath of God on the bloody city of Lichfield. His placard said: 'Jesus Is Lord - Bringing The Gospel To The West'.

His horse drew its lips back from around a set of long, smoker's teeth, snickered, and began to walk, quite slowly, on its hind legs."

Just a small incident, but the evangelist and his horse could well serve as a metaphor for this tale of the homesteaders of eastern Montana. In the early years of this century, they came in a great migration (many of them immigrants from Europe, Britain and Scandinavia) in search of a new life of independence, farming the prairie where nature refused to be subdued. Drought, dust-storms, hail from pea-size to the size of grapefruit, vagrant cyclones, grasshopper plagues and bone-numbing cold - to some it really did seem like the wrath of God. Some, like the evangelist, clung on desperately: many more fell in the dust.

In 1909, Congress passed The Enlarged Homestead Act, offering 320 acres of 'semi-arid' land to settlers for 'proving-up'. After five years, if the property proved to have been kept under cultivation, the homesteader could obtain full title to the land for a small fee.

At about the same time, the Milwaukee and St. Paul's Railroad (the Milwaukee Road) was being built through the Badlands of Dakota and Montana. As they moved across the prairie, the railroad company established fledgling towns alongside the tracks and set about attracting the settlers who would be its customers. So, they produced illustrated, imaginative brochures picturing rich, free farmland, and distributed them all over the United States and Europe.

The new settlers who read the brochures and took up the government's land offer were not fools. They were misguided by 'scientific experts' who offered proof of the efficacy and effectiveness of 'dry-farming' in areas of inadequate rainfall. They were optimists, dreamers and adventurers, people determined to better their lot however much hard work and determination were required. But they were misled. A familiar tale, perhaps, since similar grant schemes and tricky advertising have attracted hopeful adventurers in many places, and still do: but none the less moving for that.

Jonathan Raban, himself a recent immigrant to the United States, tells much of this tale through the words and memories of descendants of the early homesteaders. He tells it with humour and compassion, uncovering the tracks (sometimes literally) of vanished homesteaders', and experiencing something of the lives of those who survived. His prose is a delight to read, and his instinct for the unusual leads in strange directions - to ruined houses still holding the fragments of their owners' dreams; to ancient schoolbooks teaching survival skills to the early homesteaders' children; to contemplation of Evelyn Cameron's unique photographs; and to pubs, towns, homes and, best of all, people all along the route of the Milwaukee Road.

This is travel- writing at its very best. It is also literature of the sort that Frank Lentricchia recently described - its readers "shut-ins", offered an irresistible, totally absorbing means of escape. And its sub-title, 'an American romance', is exactly right, for it is full of love, heartbreak, intrigue, ambition and devastating failure. But this is no steamy fantasy: it is an epic journey through recent history to its present-day result. Raban conveys the feel of the country, the toughness of the people, the bitterness of failure and the fierce independence of those who have survived, and he does it supremely well.

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