This book mirrors the landscape it describes: slow, meandering, and seemingly endless. Although the tragedy of the Montana homesteaders is worthy of a place in American history, the author fails to make the personal connections between the reader and the subject of the book. Raban interviews many different people along the Montana plains, but his writing fails to make the reader feel as if he or she knows the people. It seems more like listening to snippets of a public radio broadcast than making connections with human subjects. The book gives the impression of an overzealous Brit exploring the wildness of the American West in a cheesy PBS documentary, yet, to Americans, it is the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder minus the compellingly simple narrative arcs. Raban meanders through the “Bad Land” of Montana, and every inch seems miserable and gray.
Post-Reading Discussion Questions
by Jennifer and David Dines
1. Compare the effects of the Homestead Act on the railroad industry to its effects on individual homesteaders.
2. How did personal pride and independence influence homesteaders?
3. What is the role of faith in American invention?
4. How does the Wollaston family’s lifestyle contrast with the environment in which they live?
5. How did the homesteaders’ view of themselves differ from the government’s view of the homesteaders?
6. How did advertising serve as a catalyst for the settlement of the railway?
7. What is the role of debt in middle class American adulthood?
8. How are the grasshopper plagues a metaphor for the homesteaders themselves?
9. In what way is self-sufficiency threatening to organized government?
10. Did the homesteaders realize the extent of their effect on Boston and New York-based investors?