Early in the twentieth century wannabe homesteaders came to the dry Eastern plains of Montana from all over including Europe, Scandinavia, the East Coast of the United States. They were lured by government offers of free land and by artfully deceptive pamphlets with instruction on the new, scientific method of “dry farming”, that worked by capillary action and was bunkum promoted by Hardy W Campbell in his book “Campbell’s Soil Culture Manual.” The ranchers had argued the dry lands couldn’t be farmed but government and the rail-road companies wanted to get Eastern Montana populated.
15 inches of rain annually, were deemed necessary for farming to be at all feasible. After a few good seasons the rain fell below the 15 inches break even point, the land dried up and many of the homesteaders were ruined. Some hung on to the land, others fled west, heartbroken and eager for any kind of work. Many finally ended up in the Emerald City of Seattle, where Raban lives. Jonathan Raban weaves the story of these pioneers with the memories of their descendants. He travels in their footsteps and describes the scenes they must have observed. His prose is witty. He has a native curiosity about long forgotten events and brings them to life.
The history of Montana was one of temporary settlements, from the Native Americans chasing the buffalo, to the log cabins of the trappers and miners, the camps of the railroad workers, through to the trailer parks of today. “The West is a realm of chronic impermanence, where the camp, not the village has been the typical settlement.” It wasn’t equipped for permanent settlement, the homesteaders came out with dreams of their own land to improve and hand on to their descendants. The badlands of the prairies were flat and dry and the weather was formidable. In the winter temperatures could drop to minus 40 (Celsius or Fahrenheit). In the summer violent storms could bring hailstones, which would destroy the crops and plagues of grasshoppers.
The narrative also connects with the mistrust the folks of Eastern Montana have for the government, understandable when their ancestors had been duped in the past. Notorious characters like Timothy McVeigh and the Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, are connected to this land.