There's a fine moment early in Bad Land, Jonathan Raban's new memoir/travelogue about the American West, that goes a long way toward explaining why this British-born writer (he now lives in Seattle) is among the most compelling and worthwhile travel writers alive. Poking around in the ruins of an abandoned Montana farmhouse, Raban stumbles upon a decades-old ledger that unwittingly tells the story of one farm family's demise. Listing the ledger's grim figures would have been dry history in another writer's hands, but Raban brings the moment home. He pores over these figures, and he's clearly moved: "By the last page, the handwriting was all over the place and the figures were standing, or leaning, an inch high on the paper. How do you turn $2.54 into $5688.90 [the farm's debt]? I've made my own pages of calculations in the same distraught writing; seen the numbers gang up on me and breed. What the bottom line always says is the old 2 a.m. cry, We can't go on living like this."
Like so many great travel and history books, Bad Land is as much about its author as it is about the territory it covers. You can feel Raban's compulsive interest in the West expand as the book progresses ("An emigrant myself, [I was] trying to find my own place in the landscape and history"), and there are some wonderful moments when he tries to communicate his excitement to others, who look at Montana's vast, flat, grassy surfaces and are reminded only of "badly maintained golf courses." Raban is gruffly comic, too, on his inability to find anything to eat besides microwave burritos on his travels, and on the way contemporary Western women tend to dress for the 1990s while "nearly all the men appeared to have stepped off the set of a period Western."
Yet Bad Land is more than a roadmap of Raban's own neuroses and travails. His book is primarily about the European emigrants who were drawn to the West early in this century by the lure of cheap land, and by false promises - made by bankers, railroad companies, and the government - that they could succeed at "dry farming" in this arid landscape. Raban crafts this sad tale magnificently, contrasting the emigrant's hope and determination with the bad faith of those who led them blindly into this forbidding landscape. It's a bitter, compellingly-told tale. -- Salon
Hunting Mister Heartbreak (LJ 4/15/91) told of British-born Raban's last journey through the United States. Bad Land, emanating from his latest travels, might have been titled "Finding Mister Heartbreak," as he examines the 1910-20 diaspora of homesteaders to the badlands of southeastern Montana. Attracted by free land and glowing promotional pamphlets distributed by the railroads, settlers flocked to this semi-arid region to try their hand at dry-land farming. Their dreams too often turned to nightmares featuring drought, cold, grasshoppers, and isolation, and by the end of the "Dirty Thirties" many were gone. Raban shows a travel writer's eye and a social critic's sensibilities while probing the land, homesteaders' journals and letters, and the reminiscences of their descendants. Recommended. [Portions of this book were excerpted in the May 20, 1996, issue of the New Yorker.Ed.]Jim Burns, Ottumwa P.L., Iowa
As good a book as I have read about rural America in a very long time.
The New York Times Book Review