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Bad Land: An American Romance

3.95 of 5 stars 3.95  ·  rating details  ·  795 ratings  ·  88 reviews
A New York Times Editors' Choice for Book of the Year
Winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award
Winner of the PEN West Creative Nonfiction Award

"No one has evoked with greater power the marriage of land and sky that gives this country both its beauty and its terror. "
--Washington Post Book World

In 1909 maps still identified eastern Montana as the Great American Deser
Paperback, 384 pages
Published October 7th 1997 by Vintage (first published 1985)
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22nd out of 124 books — 80 voters
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Community Reviews

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Mar 08, 2014 sckenda rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Lovers of Spare Landscape; Regional Historians; Homesteaders
Recommended to sckenda by: New York Times Editor's Choice; National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction
I can see how those homesteaders were tricked. I was too. I misread the title. I thought this book was about the scenic Badlands of South Dakota and signed up for a tour. No, this is about “bad land,” as in, the-land-is-very-bad-in-eastern-Montana-and-western-North-Dakota.

Don’t think Yellowstone. Think oceanic emptiness; the desolate prairie; the whiteness of Melville’s whale. Think Siberian winter. Think Valley of Dry Bones. “When rain falls in these falls with the weight of an asto
I picked this book up on the advice of the gossip monger of Terry, Montana. Terry is my favorite town ever, but I can't live there because there are no jobs and the wind would cause me to go insane, run away and live in a creek bed with my horse, and then drown in a sudden summer storm in a flash flood, which would lead the creek to be known as "Drowned Crazy Woman Creek."

The book a good telling of a myriad of experiences of the homesteaders of the early 20th century in the dryland region of Eas
Early in the twentieth century homesteaders came to the dry Eastern plains of Montana from all over including Europe, Scandinavia, the East Coast of the United States. They were drawn by government offers of free land and by artfully deceptive pamphlets with instruction on the new, scientific method of "dry farming". After a few hopeful seasons the rain stopped, the land dried up and these determined newcomers were ruined. Some hung on to the land, others fled west, heartbroken and eager for any ...more
If you ever wanted to know why the people of the Northwest (and we're not talking the cityfolk in Seattle) think and feel they way they do, then this is the book you need to read to understand the history behind the politics and attitudes of today. This is a fascinating look at the history of a particular period and area of our country and Bad Land pays big dividends for those who decide they want to know some things they otherwise might not. One of my favorite non-fiction books.
Juan Alvarado Valdivia
Apr 14, 2011 Juan Alvarado Valdivia marked it as to-read
Shelves: this-book-stunk
man, I put this book to rest at pg. 140. really disappointed, but I just wasn't interested in it. other than being about Montana and some random people and families connected to the region, I wasn't sure what the purpose was in writing it other than Raban putting together a rag-tag of anecdotes and narratives about this new American obsession of his. The writing itself is fantastic, but I wasn't captivated by any narrative strand he threw in. Kind of seemed to hit the same note: Montana's a toug ...more
Kathleen F
Strange that there isn't a genre of literature devoted to place. Sure, there are "travel" books, but these tend to suggest dalliances, adventures that are measured in days, passports, tourism. But I find myself increasingly drawn to books and authors that explore locations as biographers would explore lives: delving into personalities, histories, parentage, lovers, abusers, and the details that so many casual passers-by might miss. Jonathan Raban's exploration of the ruined, Eastern stretches of ...more
This book has been on my radar since it was published in 1998, so yes, that's a very long time.

Mr. Raban goes to Montana and explores the promises that brought a generation of homesteaders to the state in the early 1900s, how their dreams worked out (badly, for as we know now, these poor souls were looking at the dust bowl and Great Depression in just a generation.) It was a little weird for me to figure out he was British. That was never mentioned directly, and instead I was left to figure it o
Fascinating and well written. The book follows closely a group of families that settled in the same area near Ismay, MT. Those that managed to stay and those that picked up and headed west. It is now clear that most of the area is much too dry to farm and is livestock land. He talks to their kids and grandkids, reads their writings and uses a book of interviews of people from the area that was put together in 1972.
My sister gave this book to me. She picked this book up because our mom was born i
Elizabeth Theiss
When I first moved to South Dakota, a bookseller friend recommended this book as an avenue to understanding the people and the place that has now been my home for over a decade. Raban writes as an outsider seeing the Great Plains through personal discovery of the land, artifacts, historical records, and conversations. So he walks through one of the prairie skeletons that dot the western prairies and describes what he sees--the things left by the unfortunate homeowners back in the Thirties who de ...more
Jonathan Raban's Bad Land traces the growth and decline of family farming in the inhospitable territory of Eastern Montana. At the beginning of the 20th century, this area was touted as the next great frontier (mostly by the railways who were looking to find inhabitants for the depot towns they needed). Thousands of European immigrants as well as seasoned Midwestern farmers looking for opportunities to expand arrived to stake their claims on soil that was proclaimed to be astonishingly fertile. ...more
I was about to rate this book a Four until the last three chapters, but these were so engrossing I upped my rating to Five. Book is mainly about how railroads circa 1910 promoted eastern Montana to immigrants and easterners as the end of the rainbow, took them out there and dumped them. Author spent two years in the 1990s visiting the area, rummaging through deserted farmsteads, talking with descendants from the duped families as well as with those who now prosper. Families seduced into small-fa ...more
Wonderful history of the settling of Montana and North Dakota. Rabin takes us back to the early 1900's by trekking through the rough desert landscape that so many people thought they could transform into the next Garden of Eden. He delves into the written diaries of the settlers and the memories of the few remaining descendants that live there to produce an outstanding account of the broken hopes and dreams of the rugged folks who tried to survive. If the weather didn't drive the people away, th ...more
Stacy Bearse
Well-researched and nicely told, BAD LAND looks at the great western migration that took place at the turn of the century. The plot is straightforward: city dwellers move to homestead plots in Montana, discover bad soil and terrible weather, ultimately fail miserably, and migrate further westward. The story is in the details. The novice farmers were lured by a government program which was instigated by the railroad industry, which needed people and an agri-industry to fuel its expansion west. Th ...more
Matt Brant
Raban makes riveting the bleak story of the settling of Eastern Montana in the late 19th century. It is well-organized, skillfully written, and based on sources like letters, diaries, and contemporary newspaper stories. It's a fascinating blend of travel narrative, history, and journalism. No wonder in 1996 it won prestigious prizes such as the National Book Critics Circle Award for General Nonfiction and the NYT Editors' Choice for Book of the Year. Anybody interested in pioneer or frontier lif ...more
Western Montana is God's country, a land of sparkling rivers and high mountains. A River Runs Through It is set here. Eastern Montana is another country entirely, a dead-flat prairie, almost completely uninhabited. Yet it was here, in this Bad Land, that railway magnates opening up the west tried to people with towns and cities, not realizing that the fragile rangeland was lost to the wind with every tooth of the plough. In this tale of how the West was Lost, Jonathan Raban encapsulates the birt ...more
I would recommend this book to anyone who has any interest in the Western US.
I have driven through part of Wyoming a couple of times and remember vividly the feeling that my car was not moving at all because of the space and lack of landmarks. Mr. Raban spends time discussing this phenomenon in the beginning of his book, which, at that point, I was enjoying. By the midpoint of his book, I felt regret every time I had to put it down to do something else. He does a great job weaving history, geogr
This is the second time reading this book and it was well worth it. I really enjoyed the picture painted by Raban of the Montana life and landscape back at the beginning of the last century. For anyone who enjoys picture-language together with factual descriptions, then this would suit you. If you want a story with a plot, then you may not wish to take this book on. By reading this, you will learn a lot about a way of life which is quite unknown to people living in the UK (but may well be unders ...more
Author Jonathan Raban's opening chapter eloquently drew me into semi-arid Eastern Montana. The book chronicles how just after the turn of the century the promise of free land from the government and deceptive publicity campaigns drew in emigrants. Their stories are amazing, how they grew into communities. The book honestly tells their stories of hardship, weather and ultimately failure. Through out the book Raban weaves is own personal accounts with the surviving family members. He is an outside ...more
I thought this was going to be more of a historical approach to the settlement of the Badlands in North Dakota and Montana. I was picturing stories about wagon trains, development of towns, agriculture, etc. What I found was more of a travelogue, with author Jonathan Raban describing the overwhelming desolation of the plains and the trickery employed by the U.S. government and railroads to entice immigrants to basically a desert landscape.
Only settled in the early 1900’s and by immigrants from a
Sweetman Sweetman
Dec 05, 2009 Sweetman Sweetman rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone
Recommended to Sweetman by: my sister-in-law
Shelves: great-find
This book is one of the best of "place" for me personally. I briefly visited this area and felt lost as soon as we stepped out of the airport. The vast, endless, savage land and the BIG sky. I wondered what could draw people out there and why they stayed? Mr. Raban answers all beautifully and with humor. I am still drawn to the history of the place although it gives me an eerie feeling to think of returning.
This book gives an historical overview of farming, westward expansion, railroad building and immigration that shows how the Northern plains were settled and why that settlement was doomed to failure. Written from a Englishman's perspective, the outsider's view is helpful at illuminating what seems to be "just how it is" and demonstrates that the massive farm failures and outmigration from the region is no accident.
May 17, 2009 Tracey rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Paula Edwards
Great book that shares the history of eastern Montana. It took me forever to get around to reading it, and as I began, I wondered,"where is this book going?". But then I got into it and loved it! I so appreciate now the myth that led so many settlers to the American West - the myth that they could "tame" arid farmland and make it yeild crops like the rich soil of the Midwest.
I had never heard of Raban....I am appropiately chagrined. This book defies categorization and I was simultaneously stunned and enthralled as I experienced Raban's astounding prose...a poetic travelogue accross times and territories that is at once,a historical, sociological, political, philisophical, theological, exploration of the zeigtist of America at the turn of the century. Raban put me "there"..."there" being a mosaic of physical landscape(on the treeless, semi-arid plains of Eastern Mont ...more
A precise, clear picture of the lower eastern half of Montana just after the turn-of-the-century; and the lonely, tragic effects of Federal policies of easy credit and rah-rah boosterism on trusting people seeking to make a living. The prose is easy and insightful, the lessons applicable today.
Like Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," I still can't really tell you what this book "is" or why I liked it so much. I suppose its most proper generic category would be "cultural geography," which is really a short-hand way of saying travelogue/memoir/biography/political history.

What makes it so different from other histories is that the main character is a PLACE rather than a PERSON. And in an era of character-driven literature, such a focus makes this book both odd and oddly compellin
Alex Krembs
Bad Land is a story of homesteading in Eastern Montana during the early 1900's. The Homesteaders were ordinary immigrants who fell for the "pie in the sky" encouragement from both the US Government promotion of free land, and by the railroad companies who needed a population to settle the land newly accessed. As it turned out, the land allotment proved to be too small and dry to support a family. An early series of heavy rain years further fueled the rush and unscrupulous bank loans to Homestead ...more
Tom McDade
Wonderful, informative read!

From back cover of Bad Land:

“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 w
Jonathan Raban prende una generosa dose di storia, aggiunge geografia, topografia ed economia; miscela con antropologia e sociologia; agita con botanica, agraria, meteorologia e un po’ di zoologia; spruzza sentore di meccanica, gusto di viaggio, aroma d’autobiografia. Guarnisce con una fettina di cronaca e un cespuglio infestante d’artemisia. Ecco pronto un ottimo BAD LAND liscio che può accompagnarci per qualche giorno di piacevole sorseggiamento.

All’inizio del secolo scorso, il
Jennifer Dines
This book mirrors the landscape it describes: slow, meandering, and seemingly endless. Although the tragedy of the Montana homesteaders is worthy of a place in American history, the author fails to make the personal connections between the reader and the subject of the book. Raban interviews many different people along the Montana plains, but his writing fails to make the reader feel as if he or she knows the people. It seems more like listening to snippets of a public radio broadcast than makin ...more
After traveling cross country this summer, I had the urge to read regionally illuminating books. Bad Land is one such book. The region it illuminates is Eastern Montana. With such a small scope, Raban penetrates deep. He is fascinated by what drew people to this barren, nearly inhospitable land, and his research is excellent. He intersperses his own modern day fascination with the land with the story of a small group of homesteaders, folks who settled there in at the turn of the 20th century whe ...more
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