Bad Land: An American Romance

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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 Desert.  But in that year ...

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Bad Land: An American Romance

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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 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 was the scene of their dreams and undoing, and makes their story come miraculously alive.    

In towns named Terry, Calypso, and Ismay (which changed its name to Joe, Montana, in an effort to attract football fans), and in the landscape in between, Raban unearths a vanished episode of American history, with its own ruins, its own heroes and heroines, its own hopeful myths and bitter memories. Startlingly observed, beautifully written, this book is a contemporary classic of the American West.

"Exceptional. . . .  A beautifully told historical meditation. "

"Championship prose. . . .  In fifty years don't be surprised if Bad Land is a landmark."
—Los Angeles Times

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Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner

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

Library Journal
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
Verlyn Klinkenborg
As good a book as I have read about rural America in a very long time.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679759065
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1997
  • Series: Vintage Departures Series
  • Edition description: Reprinted Edition
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 689,444
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Raban

Jonathan Raban is the author of Soft City, Arabia, Old Glory, Foreign Land, For Love and Money, Coasting, and Hunting Mr. Heartbreak. He won the W.H. Heinemann Award for Literature in 1982 and the Thomas Cook Award in 1981 and 1991. He has also edited the Oxford Book of the Sea. He lives in Seattle.


Jonathan Raban is the author of the novels Surveillance and Waxwings; his nonfiction includes Passage to Juneau and Bad Land. He is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, the PEN/West Creative Nonfiction Award, and the Governor's Award of the State of Washington.

He was born in England and has lived in Seattle, Washington, since 1990.

Author biography courtesy of Random House, Inc.

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    1. Hometown:
      Seattle, Washington
    1. Date of Birth:
      June 14, 1942
    2. Place of Birth:
      Norfolk, England

Table of Contents

1 The Open Door 3
2 Fictions 20
3 Pictures 57
4 Fences 96
5 Plain Sailing 147
6 Heavy Weather 189
7 Clinging to the Wreckage 243
8 Off the Map 270
9 Woods and Water 300
10 Home 354
Acknowledgments 361
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 14, 2014

    One of my favorites

    If you like American history, you'll appreciate this well-researched study of the settlement and agricultural development attempts of the American west.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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