I just finished reading Jonathan Raban’s book, Bad Land: An American Romance. I plucked it from the shelf at my local library, without any pretext, purely on a whim, and I ended up reading all 320 pages in less than a week (which is quite fast for me). It was a well-written book. It shed new light on a geographic area that’s interested me for a long time. And it gave me a deeper understanding of American history — and my own history.
When browsing the nonfiction section of my public library, I expect to learn something about a topic that interests me. But I don’t often expect much in the way of style points. That’s why it was so lovely to discover that the writing for this book was far better than I had expected. Jonathan Raban writes with a sense of immediacy, but he also paints a compelling picture. His British-American perspective provides a healthy distance from his subject material. Clearly, Raban loves the High Plains of the western Dakotas and eastern Montana, as much as I do, but he can also see its flaws. Consequently, he’s able to write about the past and present of this region in a way that’s nuanced. And beautiful.
I had no idea how much the railroads dictated the settlement of the High Plains. They basically plopped down a town every six to twelve miles to help service the steam engines of the railway and to create a market for their continued role in ferrying passengers and goods to and from the rest of the Continent. They didn’t give much consideration to the geography; in fact, they actively campaigned for homesteaders to come out and cultivate land that is not well-suited for cultivation. Consequently, the railroad executives and government officials created unimaginably-difficult circumstances for already-disadvantaged people. It was a sobering story of hope and disappointment. The time frame of settling the western Dakotas and eastern Montana was also surprising to me: far more recent than I realized. Much of the book’s narrative centers around the time period from 1909 to 1939, which puts it squarely within the range of actual experience for actual human beings whom I have known personally.
My own parents grew up on the prairie: my Dad in Kerkhoven, Minnesota; my Mom in Jamestown, North Dakota. And I especially saw the story of my maternal grandfather, Ezra Liechty, in the pages of this book. It’s not hard to believe that his parents were among the throngs of immigrants, initially settled in the eastern United States (Indiana, in the case of the Liechtys), who moved out west to claim their own 320-acre homestead in the Dakotas (Brimfield, North Dakota, in the case of the Liechtys). My great-grandparents would have struggled in the droughts of the 1910s, just as my grandfather and his brothers struggled in the droughts of the 1930s. They eked out an existence by ingenuity, luck, and hard work — but it was not a glamorous life. It makes me appreciate the Liechtys eventual prosperity even more, to know how hard that road across the Great Plains really was for them.
The book also provided some fascinating context for what we might now call “The Rise of the Red States” (though the book was written in the mid-1990s, before such terminology was popular). The stories from the earliest settlement of the region — especially the deceit and manipulation of the railroad companies and the government agents — supplies a valuable back-story for the extreme distrust of the U.S. federal government that seems so widespread in the Great Plains today. The book provides a few glimpses that help to explain the development of the Montana militia… Ted “The Unabomber” Kascinski… Timothy McVeigh… and David Koresh. Again, it creates a more nuanced, sympathetic-but-not-sycophantic portrait of “Middle America” that could be really helpful for other Americans to read and understand.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in American history, the Great Plains, or just good nonfiction.