An American Romance
By Jonathan Raban
Pantheon, 324 pp., $25
In 1909, Congress offered free land in the Dakotas and eastern Montana to anyone who would move West to claim - and cultivate - it.
Through the Enlarged Homestead Act, settlers received half a square mile (320 acres) of what they expected would become prime farmland; all they needed was a train ticket West and a little coaching in the new "dry farming" methods. The railroad ads promised homesteaders would become rich barons of sprawling estates.
It was an alluring offer.
Unfortunately, as first-rate writer Jonathan Raban unfolds so expertly in his 20th-century history of Montana, the newcomers found the land was bad: bad for growing crops, bad for grazing cattle, bad for fulfilling naive dreams.
There was too little rain and too much isolation. Winter winds of driving 50-below windchill smacked unforgivingly against the makeshift houses. For most settlers, the foolish hope to turn prairie dust to gold (or even to something green) turned sour. So they packed up and went farther West to rivers and rainfall, where the grass really was greener.
But as that chapter of Montana history closes, another opens. And Raban is there, watching, asking, sensing. In this book of history and travel, "Bad Land: An American Romance," Raban weaves easily between the past and present, at times almost erasing the boundary.
He takes us to the newly re-named town of Joe, Mont., (formerly Ismay, pop., 28), a gimmick to attract tourist dollars.
Down the road in Noxon, Raban stops for lunch with the bearded suspender-and-flannel-shirt crowd, (complete with camouflage caps and black lace-up boots), who eye the Englishman warily in his tweed Brooks Brothers jacket, corduroy slacks, and navy deck shoes.
No one speaks. This is the land of the recluse, and Noxon is home to the Militia of Montana, more than a little in-the-news lately after the Oklahoma City bombing. (A bumper sticker nearby reads: "Gun control means using two hands.")
But the heart of the book is a history of the homesteaders, which Raban tells through the lives of a handful of families, primarily three generations of Wollastons.
We meet Mike Wollaston, the middle-aged grandson of Ned, who settled eastern Montana in 1910. Mike and author Raban travel from Seattle (where Mike, and the author, now live) to his grandparents' original homestead.
At first the men can't find it. But when they do, they see there's precious little left, at least outwardly. Raban watches grandson Mike: "Here, picking over the scant wreckage of the family farm, he was daydreaming these fragments back to life again; the parlour rising from the grass, new cedar rafters making a grid of the blue sky."
Raban tells a lot of the history (and some of the present) in what he calls "imaginative reconstruction." This method may not suit readers who prefer footnotes, sources, and past tenses (or who strongly dislike historical novels by James Michener). But the rest of us must trust him and hope he's done his homework.
When Ned Wollaston is deciding to leave the homestead, Raban writes: "[He and his wife] were grizzled, tired, lonely.... He could not in fairness subject Dora to another evil winter, and he hardly had the stomach for it himself." They gave up, packed their Model T, and headed West.
Raban is especially suited to writing about displaced immigrants because he, too, left his homeland, England, to settle in America. He's written many books, including "Hunting Mister Heartbreak."
An observer who misses little, he evokes powerful images from small details. Of the abandoned schoolhouses dotting the prairie he writes: "Bleached now to ... ash-gray, short of doors, windows, roof-tiles, they exude a wan authority, like toothless deaf old teachers unable to give up the habit of instruction."
Best of all, the writer likes life and enjoys what he's doing. He makes witty observations about others as well as himself, but his self-consciousness never swells to conceit; for this we like and trust him.
* Elizabeth A. Brown grew up on her family's farm in Michigan, homesteaded in 1835.