Book: Bad Land

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Book:

Bad Land: An American Romance

Author: Jonathan Raban
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Publisher: Vintage Books USA

In 1909 maps still identified eastern Montana as the Great American Desert. But in that year Congress, lobbied heavily by railroad companies, offered 320-acre tracts of land to anyone bold or foolish enough to stake a claim to them. Drawn by shamelessly inventive brochures, countless homesteaders—many of them immigrants—went west to make their fortunes. Most failed. In Bad Land, Jonathan Raban travels through the unforgiving country that was the scene of their dreams and undoing, and makes their story come miraculously alive. In towns named Terry, Calypso, and Ismay (which changed its name to Joe, Montana, in an effort to attract football fans), and in the landscape in between, Raban unearths a vanished episode of American history, with its own ruins, its own heroes and heroines, its own hopeful myths and bitter memories. Startlingly observed, beautifully written, this book is a contemporary classic of the American West.

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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.

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