by Jonathan Raban
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
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Book list Raban, a Briton who offered an outsider's view of the U.S. in Old Glory (1981) and Hunting Mr. Heartbreak (1991), moved to Seattle six years ago, but his survey of life in eastern Montana's "bad land" in this century still benefits from his knowledge of the places European settlers who came to Montana's Prairie and Custer Counties had left. They (and Americans coming from the East and Midwest) were drawn to the "Great American Desert" by the 320 acres of land promised by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909; by pamphlets and ads from the Milwaukee Road Railroad, new to the territory and anxious to build up its market; and by the pseudoscience of "dry land farming." In 1915, after a few lush years, Montana's erratic rain stopped; two years later--and again in the "Dirty Thirties" --failed homesteaders moved on: to the Rockies, Washington state, and California. Bad Land is history sans footnotes, geography sans maps: Raban wallowed in eastern Montana, talking to homesteaders' descendants, reading memoirs and schoolbooks, exploring abandoned buildings, living through gulleywashers, lightning storms, and bitterly cold winters, and examining complex links between the region's past and present. --Mary Carroll
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Publishers Weekly Raban (Old Glory), an Englishman now settled in Seattle, has written a vivid and utterly idiosyncratic social history of the homesteading movement in eastern Montana that went boom and bust during the first three decades of this century. It is the story of a dream turned sour that still echoes in the western American consciousness. Lured by free land from the government and a deceptive publicity campaign mounted by the local railroad, thousands from all over the eastern United States and northern Europe went to Montana to make their fortune as farmers. Raban follows the stories of several families, most of which end in heartbreak. He examines the literature that lured them there and the how-to books they read once they arrived. He tells the story of an early photographer, a woman, who recorded life on the prairie. He covers the weather, the homegrown school system, the early bankrupting fad of replacing horses with tractors, a Depression-era town built by the WPA and?most recently?the failed attempt of the dying community of Ismay to revive itself by changing its name to Joe, Montana, in the vain hope of luring football fans. Raban combines his personal experiences during the two years he traveled in Montana with historical research to argue that, given the land and the weather, the homesteading scheme was doomed to failure. The legacy today, seen most dramatically in the anti-government militia movement, is the belief, rooted in family memory, that government and big business conspire together against the little folk. This seemingly informal yet careful blend of chronicle and personal reportage is social history at its best. (Nov.)
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