Bad Land, by Jonathon Raban, was one of those books that really hit a sensitive spot in my psyche. The author was writing a story about a group of people, at a particular time and in a specific place. I was reading it for my book club and, although I knew vaguely what it was about, it wasn’t until I was a ways into the book that I realized that the people he was talking about might as well have been my immediate ancestors. The time was the early 20th Century and the people were the mass of hopeful immigrants (both American and foreign) who took advantage of the Homestead Law to settle Montana. My father’s parents were among those immigrants, in their case American farmers from the mid-west, who came in search of a place of their own. Needless to say, after I made the connection, I couldn’t put this book down.
The book is ultimately about, not only the ones who arrived, but also about those that were disappointed and eventually left again. My grandparent’s story ended up that way. Eventually they ended up on the west coast where my parents met and most of the story of our family took place. In all of the years I had been listening to the tales my family told, somehow, it had not sunken in that my grandparents were brought to Montana by the Homesteading fever like so many others at that time. I have a very different view of my family’s history now and I am having to re-read a lot of the things I have collected for my genealogy work in that new light.
The book is well written and very personal in its style. The author spent a lot of time in Montana recently and talked to the descendants of those Homesteaders. It was touching to hear how much he found that had been abandoned and still sits where it was left, those many years ago. It is a sad story but, unfortunately, a common one. People can be easily persuaded to go almost anywhere if the reward is something for nothing. Unfortunately, this time the payoff was closer to nothing than something.