I love bookstores. Alibris and Amazon are convenient for getting your hands on any obscure title you want and even pointing you toward others you might be interested in, but the online experience can’t match the pleasure I experience in wandering through the shelves and discovering a gem no search engine algorithm would have earmarked for my attention.
My latest such acquisition is Bad Land: An American Romance, a combination multi-year roadtrip and history that perfectly captures an obscure piece of Americana – the “dryland farming” fad that briefly populated large stretches of the arid Western states with small family farms in the first decades of the 20th Century and ultimately ended in the Dust Bowl diaspora of the 1930s.
Author Jonathan Raban had the great good fortune to come across, first, a 700-page history of the period in eastern Montana – one of those micro-histories compiled by local historical societies, privately published 50 years ago and soon forgotten. Next Raban unearthed an unpublished memoir written by the son of one of the homesteading families in that area, another mother lode of local lore and anecdotes. Then he went on to spend years intensively researching the period. Most important, he spent a great deal of time on the ground in eastern Montana getting to know the land and the people. His resulting account is both engaging and informative, sympathetic but not sentimental and insightful without being at all condescending – a remarkable achievement for an ex-pat Englishman living in Seattle.
Although Bad Land is set in eastern Montana, the story could be told of any rural county between the 100th meridian and the Rockies, including eastern New Mexico. I wrote a column last year on those abandoned farmsteads and the stubborn few who endured the bad years and remain there today.