Volume 91, Issue 26

Wednesday, October 15, 1997

Country Club road


These lands ain't all that bad

Bad Land
Jonathan Raban

$19.50 / 364 pp.

Jonathan Raban's new book Bad Land is not a work which pulls its reader in from the first page. In fact, there are times near the beginning where many will be tempted to give up. Let's face it – the subject matter is, on the surface, as dry as an AA meeting. Raban begins planted in the middle of the Montana plains, viewing a landscape as featureless as the moon. His aimless narrative drives the reader to ask: Why?!

But if one ignores this temptation and gives Bad Land a chance, the work unfolds subtly, drawing the reader in with its characters and places. By the end, Raban manages somehow to make the barren badlands interesting. The reader will actually be looking for pictures of the things he describes – although unfortunately there are none.

Bad Land is referred to in the industry as "creative nonfiction," a genre usually involving personal memoirs embroidered with descriptive prose and psychological reflection. Unlike most creative nonfiction works, however, Raban's book avoids self-obsessed monologue and focuses instead on the people and places he encounters on his journey through the plains of the Western United States. Imagine On the Road, but written by Pierre Berton. Raban scours archives and interviews locals to piece together the area's compelling history. He wisely focuses on a few families, tracing their generational journeys from Europe to the hopeful expanse of the "new west" in Dakota and Montana in the early 1900s. Their stories are tragic – duped by government and business interests promising paradise out west, homesteading efforts mostly ended in failure. The paradise turned out to be an arid wasteland.

Part of the problem with Bad Land is Raban's determination to squeeze poetry out of every situation, no matter how mundane. This tendency results in some awkward lines, such as: "The driver wore a Stetson, once white, which in age had taken on the colour and some of the texture, of a ripe Gorgonzola cheese" – meaning, one supposes, that it was yellow.

The "creative" side of the nonfiction also sometimes shows through. In one scene, the author is rummaging through an abandoned homestead and on the floor he finds a piece of paper listing the missing family's debts before they bailed out of the dump. Larger and larger amounts are listed down the page, complete with agitated circles and splotches of desperation near the end. It all strikes the reader as a tad too convenient.

Nevertheless, Bad Land is worth reading. Like the land it describes, it has a power which grows on the initial sceptic. Raban has a respect for his subject matter which makes his reader understand the saccharin overindulgence. Bad Land will make you understand why generations of sane people continue to move "out West" with only a dream to guide them.

–Patrick Anderson

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Copyright The Gazette 1997