Archive for January, 2013

January 23, 2013

#52) Book review: “Bad Land” by Jonathan Raban

If Stanley Kubrick were still alive, he’d probably consider making a film of “Bad Land.”  This story of early 20th century Montana homesteaders has several themes that appealed to Kubrick: history, isolation and survival.  More importantly, the slow pace–straddling the fence between tension and tedium–that Raban uses to lead the optimistic homesteaders to impending disaster parallels “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Shining.”

Raban, an Englishman now living in Seattle, describes his book as “An American Romance.”  The story is definitely American, although the only romance might be what the homesteaders felt when they were offered the “opportunity” to buy large tracts of land in what was then called the Great American Desert.  When the Milwaukee Road laid is tracks through eastern Montana, the railroad magnates lobbied Congress to pass the Enlarged Homestead Act, with hopes that immigrants from the east coast, the Midwest and even abroad would build new towns to support the line.  Led by science that may have been deliberately deceiving, and literature that definitely was, many people took the bait.  As Raban notes, after the majority of the homesteaders failed, many took the same railroad out of town that had taken them to eastern Montana, hoping for a fresh start farther west.  But a few of the homesteaders did stay, surviving the first few years of bad weather, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the war years and everything in between.  Visiting a corral where bull calves were being branded and neutered (“quite an experience for…one and a half minutes”), Raban notes, “One would never have guessed of the amount of ruination that would have gone into the making of this scene, of country neighbors, at ease with themselves and each other.”

There’s a clear intent to the slow pace Raban uses to tell the story.  The outcome of disaster is known from the beginning, evident as Raban (in 1995, when the book was written) travels through eastern Montana, picking through ruined homes and the abandoned schoolhouse.  Raban’s attention to detail, in the backgrounds of his characters, the description of the endless prairies, and the deft manipulation of the railroad literature, serves two purposes.  In addition to establishing the world of 1909 Montana for the readers, it also holds off the impending doom, almost like a literary version of a cat playing with a mouse.

This is successful in some ways; not in others.  For example, Raban devotes over 20 pages almost exclusively to Evelyn Cameron, a photographer who documented the landscape around the time of the Enlarged Homestead Act.  While the starkness of Cameron’s photos is important, providing a hard reality that contrasts the idealized version of the land painted by the railroaders, the reader (at least this reader) might be bogged down by this rather slow section of the book.  Similarly, Raban devotes over 50 pages to stories of the homesteaders’ lives after leaving eastern Montana: settling in the more fertile western end of the state; living as itinerant apple pickers in the valleys of Washington, or making it to the “Emerald City” of Seattle.  While these epilogues are interesting to a point, most of the dramatic arc of the story has already taken place; don’t be surprised if you’re reading the last few pages more to finish the book than out of real interest.  Perhaps Raban is trying to provide a reading experience that simulates, in a literary sort of way, the trials and challenges of his subjects.

To what kind of person would “Bad Land” appeal?  Certainly history buffs; people with an interest in agriculture (my dad, off of whose shelf I pinched this book, is both.)  It might have appealed to a certain film-maker whose subject matter included space travel, the Age of Enlightenment, the Vietnam war, and a comedy about nuclear destruction.

For my part, “Bad Land” was a book that took me almost two months to get through; I would read close to a hundred pages one day and nothing more for a week.   Having finally finished the book, I can say this: like a Kubrick film, it’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always work, but on the balance, it’s a positive experience.

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