On the trail of the lonesome prairie

Jan Morris likes the allegory but can't stand the conversation in a study of Montana's dry lands; Bad Land by Jonathan Raban, Picador, pounds 15.99
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When the sublimely gifted Jonathan Raban set off from his home in Seattle to write a book about eastern Montana, his wife apparently thought it a less than thrilling notion - she watched his preparations, he says, "with poorly feigned enthusiasm". Mr Raban has already given us two famously skilful and affectionate books about the United States and he, perhaps intended Bad Land (sub-titled "An American Romance") to be the third in a sequence. I rather agree with Mrs Raban, though. It is not that the Raban touch has lost its magic only that for my own tastes the apparent subject, pursued for more than 300 pages, becomes a bit of a bore. Or perhaps I am out of my depth?

For the apparent subject is by no means the whole of it. This is certainly not a travel book - Jonathan Raban never writes mere travel books. Ostensibly it is an examination of the process, soon after the turn of the 20th century, in which hundreds of thousands of migrants were lured to the east Montana drylands by the promise of quick agricultural riches. They were misled. Most of them did their best, failed and moved on, leaving the prairies desolate and largely empty behind them.

Nobody could conjure better the resulting tristesse. When Raban takes us into some long-abandoned homestead of the prairies, with its collapsed verandah, its fridge without a door, the swallow-nests on its parlour walls, the foxed dog-eared copy of Campbell's Soil Culture Manual; when he turns his four-wheel-drive up the dirt road to one of these sad memorials of failure, we can hear for ourselves the wind off the flatlands, smell the dust, feel the springs on our thighs through the derelict sofa.

His powers of evocation are unbeatable still.

But the book is much more. It is an allegory. It is concerned not simply with the dry lands of Montana and the troubles of its settlers, but with the whole historical drama of American immigration. The original belief in progress and destiny - the American Dream - has so often been followed by disappointment and ugly reaction, and the "bad land" of the title, I take it, is not just eastern Montana, but America itself. These are great issues, sensitively explored, and illustrated by meticulous reconstructions of Raban's particular examples of migrants, what kind of people they were, what they read and talked about, how their attitudes were affected by the frequent failure (and occasional successes) of their enterprises.

I confess I did not at first realise the existence of this larger sub- plot. The trouble was that I found myself so unenticed by the foreground of the tale, the top layer of the allegory. Raban evidently loves the empty monotony of the eastern Montana landscape, just as he appreciates the down-to-earth practicality of its inhabitants. Neither captivates me. There is no pretending that by and large prairie people are scintillating talkers, and when their subject is their family's attempts to make an agricultural go of things, they tend to make my mind blur. Nobody begrudges them their memories. It must have been awful - fencing miles and miles of empty land, scooping coal out of the soil, desperately ploughing and digging and hoeing, with terrible weather and Biblical plagues of grasshoppers. But after a time I began to muddle up the Neds, Mikes, Percys, Loreens and Wynonas of Raban's reports and dialogues, to forget which was which or even which generation they represented - for having traced all he could trace of the original homesteaders, he went on to track down their descendants.

He is adept at a sort of DIY pioneerism, talking knowledgeably about things like tally pins, sprockets and gumbo clay, and conscientiously chatting not only with intelligent retired schoolmistresses, but with good ol' boys in Stetson hats on bar stools.

Now and then, all the same, he cannot help reminding us that he is a man born to a very different culture, beautifully educated, gracefully ready with an artistic analogy or a literary allusion. When he has had his fill of the Book of Revelation, the vatic text of American fundamentalist Christianity, he telephones his father, a High Anglican English clergyman, to ask if he ever had reason to quote from that book during his professional life. What a relief, the dry ironic voice over the transatlantic telephone admitting that Mr Raban Senior "did have a weakness for the phrase `the lukewarm Laodiceans' "!

"The dusty prairie", says the blurb to Bad Land, "holds the key to the puzzle of modern America'. This bit of hype, I assume, refers to Raban's contention that out of the disillusionment of the homesteaders and their kind arose the extreme right-wing, anti-federalist movements that centre upon the American north-west, and the fanatic Christian fundamentalism of modern America. The Montana homesteaders were betrayed, and Campbell's Soil Culture Manual, which Mr Raban finds in that deserted house on a very early page of his book, was the instrument of their betrayal.

H.W. Campbell had evolved the theory that semi-arid land could be made fertile by capillary attraction - coaxing water out of the soil itself. Unscrupulously taken up by the railroad companies, who had vast tracts of land for development, and fostered by the Federal Government, this dubious proposition is what brought the settlers in their multitudes to Montana, and Campbell's Soil Culture Manual was among their required reading (later their own experiences were assembled under such titles as Wheels Across Montana's Prairie and Reapers of the Dust: A Prairie Chronicle - titles which make my own heart sink, but apparently only invigorated brave Mr Raban).

Capillary attraction did not work - most of the settlers journeyed on, impoverished and embittered, to the west - and it was about then in Raban's narrative that I began to wonder if I had misunderstood the nature of his allegory, too. Perhaps it had developed, as he wrote it, into a metaphor of his own American experiences, as a settler himself? Could the bad land of its title also be his personal United States? In the sad last paragraph of the work he returns, his researches mercifully over, to the house he has acquired (built 1906) in Seattle - "a good house for an immigrant; its somewhat shabby footing on the hill matched mine". He finds its door unexpectedly locked, and has to shoulder it open. His dog doesn't bark. There is a pile of mail for him, but no note. "Anybody home?" he calls in the final line of the book, but we are not told if there is an answer. Is it just the symmetrical end of Bad Land, which begins with an empty house, or does it metaphorically conclude an American romance?