From Myrtle to militiamen

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Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban (Picador £15.99)

Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban (Picador £15.99)

LIKE labradors to their owners, some books acquire a doleful resemblance to their subject-matter. Jonathan Raban's subject here is Montana, specifically Central Eastern Montana, the coldest and blankest part of the 48 contiguous states of the Union, where the topsoil and the conversation are thinnest, and where one's bearings may most easily be lost. No travel writer likes to admit that a region he has gone to the trouble of visiting can resist his pen, and Raban makes a great effort in Montana. His pages shimmer and dance with italics, exclamation marks and suspenseful ellipses, but all to no avail. We are lost, we are baffled. Why have we been brought to this desolate plain, and when can we go home?

Raban's answer is weighty. Once, about 75 years ago, something happened here which was of the utmost importance not only for Montana but for the whole of the United States down to the present day. Certainly the tale is interesting enough, though not unique. Early this century, several thousand people arrived from the Eastern States and from Europe, took up three government land blocs, half a square mile each, and began ploughing. For a few years the rains fell and everyone did well, then the rains stopped, the topsoil blew away and so, in time, did three-quarters of the settlers, generally to Seattle, where their grandchildren now build Boeings for us. Those who stayed on switched from farming to ranching.

Raban is indefatigable in pursuit of these failed farmers' ghosts. He zig-zags across the plains interviewing the monosyllabic citizens, he lists 15 models of tractor on sale in 1915 and every item on the Montana junior school syllabus in 1911, and devotes thousands of words to photographs taken in Montana circa 1904 - not neglecting, by the by, to describe the shape of the photographer's husband's moustache and his boyhood hobbies in Argyllshire. But since the writer uses exactly the same past tense, perfect or imperfect, on the same pages to describe events in 1911 and 1924 and 1995, our bearings are easily lost in time as well as space. Three or four generations of the same family - Myrtle and Percy and Ned and Dora and Mike, some still living, some long dead - come and go without benefit of clear chronology. And we remain uncertain why we should really care about them at all.

At length, after a storm (and if there's one thing Raban does well, it is describe a storm; literary timbers still shiver at the recollection of his tempest in Coasting), the atmosphere clears. And far away across the dismaying prairie, there appears a small dot. It is an Idea. It is not much of one, true, but since it is all there is, we approach it and circle cautiously. The Idea is this: the homesteaders who went to Montana to take up the land did so to get away from the United States Government (although why numerous would-be farmers in London and Lublin and Latvia emigrated to Montana to get away from the US Government is not explained). When the homestead experiment failed, they dispersed in a cloud of even greater anti-Government feeling - a bitter haze which has seeded today's right-wing militia anger against Federal Agencies and environmentalism. The blown topsoil of the 1920s ended up forming the flames of the Waco siege and the Oklahoma City bombing.

On closer examination, this Idea starts to wilt. Seattle, for instance, where so many of the homesteaders fetched up, is, if anything, a liberal and ecologically-minded town. Secondly, the militias' real heartland is in Eastern Washington and the mountains of Western Montana, areas which have always been prosperous and, for that matter, irremediably damp. In the end, it seems that the dreary plains of Eastern Montana are as harsh on historical theory as they are on wheat and alfalfa - and on the ambitions of the travel writer.