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Dreams turn to Dust.,
This review is from: Bad Land (Paperback)
"Bad Land" is a captivating account of the great con perpetrated by the USA government and big business, working in cahoots, primarily against emigrants from Britain and Europe who were deceived by the prospect held out to them of a new life in eastern Montana as homesteaders farming free, fertile land. The reality was that the new railways running through the dry prairies of Eastern Montana depended on passengers and freight for survival and this required the land to be populated and worked. The stark truth was that the promised land was dry and dusty, with little rainfall - land you couldn't grow a toenail on, totally unsuitable for farming. Unbeknown to the emigrants, they would end up owning "all the dust, rock and parched grass you could see, and more." Thousands of attractive, glossy brochures were distributed far and wide across the USA and Europe promoting the golden dream of riches and prosperity as being there for the taking, just waiting to be snapped up. James J. Hill, the notorious railway magnate, lauded the homesteader scheme as "opening the vaults of a treasury and bidding each man help himself" People were so taken in by the prospect of riches in the new world dangled before them in glossy "golden" presentations and pictures that they were prepared to uproot their lives and their families and risk their lot on "a landscape in a book." They had no conception of what they were letting themselves in for.
Raban is at his best re-creating the great adventure west to eastern Montana, his imagery of that vast, forbidding terrain capturing the landscape in all its moods. He recaptures the arrival of the emigrants by train, taking us into their lives as they try to live out their dream, building their homesteads, fencing their land, borrowing to fund the buying of stock, seed and gasoline tractors and struggling to farm their barren land. Raban brings to life the difficult years that followed the early optimism, reliving how the homesteaders - against the odds of the raking north wind, the cold of Montana "like a boot in the face", the dust, the dry land, the drought years, the dying cattle, the swarms of grasshoppers ("For every hopper killed it seemed like an entire family came to the funeral") - battled in vain to build a fragile, ordered world only to see it crumble rapidly around them within the space of a decade or so. Defeated, most homesteaders quit in the period 1917-1928 and headed further west. It was like coming out of a bad dream. Their bible, "Campbell's soil culture manual", the bestselling guide to husbanding dry land had proved to be a piece of absolute twaddle but too late, did the truth finally dawn that it was the "half-baked theory of a pseudo-scientific crank."
By the 90's, when Raban visited eastern Montana, the homesteads were reverting back to nature: odd fenceposts, rusty harrows and derelict houses the only visible remnants of the homesteaders' hopes and dreams. "Bad Land" could, and should have been, a pure, undiluted five-star classic account of the homesteaders tragic experience and for the most part it is but it occasionally, irritatingly, strays into unnecessary technical detail and lengthy digressions on, for example, "Campbell's soil culture manual", Photography, and Ismay's attempt to re-invent itself under the new name of "Joe" (Montana), rather than remaining firmly yoked to the central theme of the homesteaders' tragic experience - the last part of the book is a further illustration of this kind of distraction. Still recommended though!