The Plains That Broke the Plow

Bad Land: An American Romance

by Jonathan Raban
Pantheon, 324 pp., $25.00

When that largely forgotten son of the middle border, Hamlin Garland, wrote Main-Traveled Roads in 1891, he offered up a terse image of the northern Great Plains that has often been echoed since: “The farther I got from Chicago,” Garland said,

the more depressing the landscape became…. The houses, bare as boxes, dropped on the treeless plains, the barbed-wire fences running at right angles, and the towns mere assemblages of flimsy wooden sheds with painted-pine battlement, produced on me the effect of an almost helpless and sterile poverty.

In 1927 Ole Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth reinforced this perception with its tale of four Norwegian families who leave Minnesota to homestead in the Dakota Territory and are eventually done in by loneliness, poverty, back-breaking labor, and an unimaginably hostile land. Rölvaag’s chapter titles alone (like “The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied”) defined the hopelessness with which he viewed his characters’ chances for survival in such a grim and malevolent place.

And practically every writer about the prairies who followed—even when they found beauty in the drama of a boundless sky, the quality of its light, the movement of wind through winter wheat—confirmed the reality of a land of pitiless extremes, in which even the most industrious and self-reliant settlers were forced to their knees. Even the most hardworking American farmer, in the tradition conceived by Crèvecoeur and Thomas Jefferson, needs more than perseverance to prosper in the northern Great Plains. The Plains hold the Western Hemisphere’s record for absolute temperature range (a 181-degree variation in one year at a single location in North Dakota) and provide their citizens with a steady rhythm of drought, blizzard, prairie fire, windstorm, hailstorm, and crop-devouring grasshoppers.

In Bad Land: An American Romance, Jonathan Raban, a British transplant from Norfolk, England, now living in Seattle, Washington, enters this bleak setting and finds that “the prairie made all my received ideas about landscape seem cramped and stultified.” There were, he writes, “no vistas in it. It blew the picture frame apart, and taking a camera to it (or at least my taking a camera to it) was about as much use as trying to capture it in a Claude Glass. In Seattle, I collected my prints from the processors’ and laid them out on the dining-room table. My wife made polite noises, but I could see what she was seeing: a hundred perfectly exposed snapshots of a badly maintained golf course.”

Raban is a man of enormous curiosity, endowed with a novelist’s sense of how landscape (as well as character) shapes events, and with the ability to recreate it in image and metaphor as well. Like a number of his earlier works, Bad Land is regrettably the kind of book often disparagingly categorized as “travel literature”—a misnomer here because travel is merely the thread on which he hangs a sharp-eyed, historically informed, and witty interpretation of a peculiarly sad part of the country …

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