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The Plains That Broke the Plow

Bad Land: An American Romance

by Jonathan Raban
Pantheon, 324 pp., $25.00

1.

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.

Mr. Raban has already addressed Crèvecoeur’s old question, “Who is the American, this new man?” in two of his previous works (Old Glory, 1981, and Hunting Mister Heartbreak, 1990). Both show a particular interest in the ways European emigrants become New World immigrants and, in turn, Americans—whatever that may mean in a sprawling land of polymorphous race, religion, and ethnic background. In Bad Land it is the cultural history of white settlement in eastern Montana and the western Dakotas from about 1862 to the present that attracts his attention; and he clearly sees himself in the tradition of foreign analysts who have preceded him (Crèvecoeur, Tocqueville, Mrs. Trollope, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc.), though in a distinctly modern manner.

Raban manages to avoid a number of the standard references that tend to dominate accounts of the northern Great Plains: legendary gunfighters dueling in the Deadwood sun, Custer’s Last Stand, Sitting Bull at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, the Black Hills gold rush, all are admirably ignored. Nor is Mr. Raban an environmentalist. He is interested in the geophysical terrain primarily for the effects of landscape and weather on the lives and character of settlers; the story of how the ecosystem has been subject to loss and abuse interests him hardly at all. He rarely mentions Indians, though there are a half dozen major reservations in the region about which he writes, and the Sioux, Ankara, Kiowa, Crow, and Cheyenne usually figure in accounts of the northern Plains.

2.

For two years,” Raban tells us, “I had been living with a story so American that some Americans would not recognize it as a story. These people came over, went broke, quit their homes, and moved on somewhere else? So?” He sets out to turn this indifferent sequence into the story of actual people struggling to domesticate a real, inhospitable land, and to treat the old parable of boom and bust as something other than one more repetitious chapter in the chronicle of failure in America. Concentrating on a few prairie towns like Ismay, Mildred, Terry, and Baker (all in eastern Montana), Raban follows the lives of specific homesteaders who were lured to the region in the years following the Civil War by propaganda put out by the Milwaukee Road railroad (to provide itself with clients), and later, around the turn of the century, by inspirational books like Campbell’s Soil Culture Manual and Charles Wagner’s The Simple Life. “There was a deep and troubled hankering for a life more neighbourly, more elemental, more ‘organic,”’ he writes, “and the railroad pamphlets, Campbell’s Manual…and the Enlarged Homestead Act found a receptive audience of people who were recklessly eager to believe in the idea of escaping the city to a new life in the country.” (Or escaping Europe for America.)

Raban’s settlers include couples with names like Ewen and Evelyn Cameron, and Worsell, a free-loading drifter (also known as “That Englishman”) who died in Seattle in 1973. Drawing on letters, memoirs, and accounts in newspapers, as well as interviews, he tracks them (and their progeny) throughout the narrative, reflecting on their aspirations, and on their peculiar characteristics, often relating them to his own situation as an immigrant from England. At a rodeo in Marmath, North Dakota, he meets Bud Brown, an eighty-six-year-old rancher whose grandparents had emigrated to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century but who “had not yet learned to talk in an American accent. He spoke in a queer, fossilized version of Broad Norfolk. When I was a small child in a Norfolk village in the 1940s, I used to hear voices exactly like Bud Brown’s, and it came as a jolt to hear this accent in the mouth of an old man in a white Stetson, while a cowboy riding a bull bit the dust below.”

As Raban makes clear, escape was a major factor in the settling of the Great Plains—escape from the economic deprivation of plebeian life in filthy industrial cities, and from small, rigidly hierarchical eastern farms, escape from crowding and from failure in business or farming. Equally seductive was the prospect of getting something for nothing. Free land—in fact, a quarter section, or 160 acres, of free land (enlarged in 1909 to a half section in “semi-arid” regions) for just a $22 filing fee and a promise to “prove up” on it, i.e., show that it had been converted into crop land, within five years. If the New Man failed to meet this requirement, as was often the case, he could always move on.

Settlers came primarily from east of the Mississippi, or from northern Europe (i.e., from wet and wooded environments), charmed by the great American Dream of independence, opportunity—as well as something for nothing. In pursuit of the dream they were mightily assisted by the railroad pamphlets promoting the claims to free land that were originally promised by the Homestead Act of 1862. As Raban notes:

In school atlases, the area was still called the Great American Desert—an imaginary vacancy, either without any flora and fauna, or with all the wrong flora and fauna. The railroad writers and illustrators were assigned to replace that vacancy with a picture of free, rich farmland; a picture so vivid, so fully furnished with attractive details, that readers would commit their families and their life-savings, sight unseen, to a landscape in a book.

And so the railroad men did, with lavish accounts of golden wheat fields, acres of ripening corn, melons on the vine, berries in the patch, contented cows munching through pastures of sweet clover, yeoman farmers plowing their soil into rich, black furrows. Rain, they assured prospective settlers, not only “followed the plow”; it always fell during planting season. The regional capital at Miles City, they attested, was a full-blown town with “all modern conveniences.”

A few Americans, particularly those who had already tried homesteading in Minnesota and knew something of the terrain west of the Mississippi, might have brought to this fantasy a measure of skepticism, though not necessarily enough skepticism to extinguish their confidence that there was always something better to be had. Europeans brought nothing but their own experience of forest, hedgerow, and meadow. “They had no more real idea of Montana than they had of the dark side of the moon,” Raban observes. “But they were devout believers and imaginers. The authors of the railroad pamphlets were able to reach out to an audience of ideal readers of the kind that novelists dream about, usually in vain.”

The reality, of course, was something else again, as Bad Land demonstrates. The settlers found a bleak and empty plain stretching to infinitude. It was grassland, to be sure, but with deep, heavily rooted western wheat grass, blue gramma, green needle, and prairie June grass that seemed almost impervious to the plow. Rain did not follow the plow and seemed utterly unpredictable. In this essentially treeless environment, the houses were made of sod, with dirt floors and willow poles to hold up the roof—unless one lived near enough to the railroad so that materials could be procured to build a tarpaper shack. The sod hut was structurally sturdy, but attractive to all manner of vermin, and it was hard on a marriage during the long, cold winters. So were the great distances to one’s neighbors. “For most people,” Raban writes,

…the schoolhouse was the centre of things. They had the family Bible, parked on a high shelf in the parlour. The churches of Mildred and Ismay, a long and dusty hike away, were close enough for weddings, christenings and funerals. In 1911 in the new West, it was bracing to live without benefit of clergy. For everyday inspiration and enlightenment, for a code of practical morality, for as much in the way of uplift as a body can reasonably stand, one could look to the schoolhouse on the hill. The building and its books stood for a creed that everyone believed in: progress; self-improvement….

But even with all the hard work, planning, and resourcefulness in the world, luck alone determined who would be spared from drought, blizzard, fire, a random cloud of locusts, or the irrational eccentricities of a hailstorm. “Like tumours,” Raban says, in his characteristically jocose voice, “hailstones come in standard sizes: the size of a pea, the size of a walnut, the size of a golf ball, a pool ball, a baseball, a grapefruit.” Hail falls in confined, unpredictable paths, destroying one farmer’s field while leaving his neighbor’s untouched. “It has a habit of visiting itself on the people in the community who can least afford to bear the losses caused by its devastation. It prefers the uninsured field to the insured one.”

3.

Between 1916 and 1920 rainfall on the northern Plains did not exceed thirteen inches, and during this period of drought came the wickedly cold winter of 1919, which caused most of the homesteaders to give up. Dazed, defeated, they moved on west into the Rockies, following the northern spur of the Milwaukee Road railroad that had brought them into the territory in the first place. “By 1922,” writes Raban, “the landscape had already begun to turn into the landscape that I came upon in the 1990s. For every working homestead, there was a deserted house, fast going down the road to ruin.”

The second major evacuation took place during the 1930s, when a wet cycle that had lasted about four years came to an abrupt halt, followed by great dust storms that sent most of the agricultural land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains into the air. At times as much as 150,000 tons of dust were suspended in a single square mile above the earth. The Dust Bowl, of course, encompassed the entire heartland of America, and ultimately three and a half million people were driven from their farms between 1930 and 1940. Not all were “dusted out,” but all most definitely went broke.

On the northern Plains the exodus began after the “great storm” of May 10, 1934. Like their 1920s predecessors, the “exodusters” migrated west into the mountainous regions of Montana and Idaho, and many found their way eventually into the Columbia Valley and Seattle. There were, of course, those who stuck it out (and continue to do so), less as a consequence of their resolute character than of post-Dust Bowl government aid programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program, a $35-an-acre subsidy paid to farmers not to plant wheat; the federal crop insurance program and the Emergency Livestock Feed Program; the ridiculously low fees charged for federal grazing allotments; and the like. In 1988 alone the total amount of direct federal assistance to the yeoman idealized by Jefferson was $11.9 billion, not counting land reclamation and road construction.

While Raban acknowledges that ranchers and farmers “had more tax-dollars in their pockets than any other single group of Americans, not excluding, say, single teenage black mothers on welfare,” it is the prevailing local hatred of the federal agencies and federal agents dispensing all this largesse that really captures his imagination. He recalls a story told to him by Bud Brown about two young women from the Federal Bureau of Land Management coming to his ranch to conduct a range inspection and being taken on a “tour” of the property by his son Johnny. “Johnny, he was kind of thorough,” Mr. Brown recalls. “Didn’t want them girls to miss nothing. So it took ‘em a while to see all thirty-six sections [a section is one square mile]…. Time they got back to the house, it was past nightfall—and you could have sold their little asses for raw hamburger.”

So they were back next week, eager for another ride?” Raban asks.

Funny thing: we haven’t had a squeak out of the BLM since that day.”

Raban learns, moreover, that Brown’s college-bound granddaughter has chosen North Dakota State at Fargo over scholarships at the University of Montana and Portland State in Oregon. When he asks her why, she opines that there are too many “enviro types” in Missoula and too liberal a bias at Portland.

But Fargo turned out to be illiberal enough for you—“

These anti-Fed, anti-environmental sentiments, Raban suggests, have their origins in the historical discrepancy between the illusory promises of the Homestead Act and the realities of dry-land farming. “The misleading language and pictures of the pamphlets would eventually entitle the homesteaders to see themselves as innocent dupes of a government that was in the pocket of the corporation fatcats—and their sense of betrayal would fester through the generations.”

It is this assumption that leads Raban to what seems to me one of the few dubious conclusions in his book. In following some of his prairie families along their migratory route from middle border to western Washington, he encounters towns like Lincoln, Montana (home of the alleged Unabomber), and Noxon, Montana (home of the Montana Militia), and Sandpoint, Idaho (home of Aryan Nations and Mark Fuhrman, as well as the town nearest to Ruby Ridge). This concentration of extremists leads him to conjecture that we can find among these modern anti-authority, anti-government groups and ideological crackpots “one perverse legacy of the homesteading experience and its failure on the plains.”

But however much some of the people he talked to may have been affected by local history, Plains residents have no peculiar claim on an exaggerated distrust of government, or fervor for private property rights, or sanctimonious Bible thumping. Nor are they unique in their dislike of the controls and restrictions imposed by those elected to broker the nation’s affairs and spend its tax revenues. “Give us the money, and get out” is the battle hymn of the western republic, whether it comes from sagebrush rebels in Nevada and Utah, welfare ranchers in Wyoming, or water-guzzling cotton growers in the Central Valley of California.

It seems more likely that sociopaths like Bo Gritz, Randy Weaver, Ted Kaczynski (originally from Buffalo, New York), the Trochman brothers, Louis Beam, and Timothy McVeigh—an amazing assembly of right-wing and other fanatics whom Raban calls “bad-blood descendants of the homesteaders”—are, in fact, examples of a far more complex anger that is regionless in character, and that has always had an alarming appeal among white males in America, whether they speak in a Southern accent, a Brooklyn accent, or the bromides of Orange County. The right-wing groups called survivalists—who expect to survive the coming race war—may have found that the social structure of the northern Rockies provides an environment sympathetic to their inclinations to sequester themselves (or to undertake covert activities); but to locate the roots of their paranoia in the experience of the Great Plains seems to me stretching for a point.

The narrative strategy throughout Bad Land can be characterized by a single passage from one of its early chapters:

Every few weeks, I absented myself from home and drove the thousand miles from Seattle to eastern Montana, where I holed up in my now-regular room in the Baker motel and conducted “research.” This research consisted of long, exhilarating drives on dirt roads over the prairie and through the badlands, punctuated by occasional calls on ranches and farms. I bought a straw hat, and a pair of knee-high boots to deflect rattlesnakes, also a wooden jack to claw the boots off my tenderfoot feet. I traded in my Dodge Daytona for a 4-wheel-drive Jeep. My wife watched all this with poorly feigned enthusiasm.

The book that follows confirms the role established in the paragraph, i.e., the writer as a witty, urbane, keenly observant interlocutor who does his homework, but is, by his own insistence, a permanent outsider. It is the approach and tone that enable Raban to avoid an appearance of superiority over the redneck buckaroos he encounters on his travels (not to mention their washed-out ancestors); they provide him at the same time with an essential element of his charm—the ability to poke fun at himself as a man out of his element.

But the role of the sympathetic traveler also enables the author to avoid becoming censorious about any number of aspects of his subject that clearly lend themselves to critical scrutiny. He has little to say about the devastation of the northern grasslands by mindless overgrazing and overplowing; an agricultural industry that continues to survive by government assistance (known as welfare ranching); the stubborn resistance of the Plains farmers and businessmen to environmental regulations and their enthusiastic support of an ecologically disastrous program of “predator control” (now known as Animal Damage Control, and federally budgeted at $35 million). I miss the hard edge Raban might have brought to these issues.

And yet it was not Raban’s intention to take on the entire culture of eastern Montana and the Dakotas, but to evoke and trace the movements of the people who passed through it. Who knows, he might want to go back someday. And yet his book in every other way recreates the northern Plains “turf” as splendidly as any I can think of, and gives its inhabitants, past and present, an actuality that is often disfigured in the interest of flamboyant legend.

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