Bad Land – Jonathan Raban

Still in DC, though slightly less freezing now that the temperature has settled in the mid-50s. Will be heading up to NYC in a few days in order to enjoy its December offerings.

This week’s reading selection was Bad Land: An American Romance by Jonathan Raban. Things I did not know until just now, when I went to retrieve the Amazon link: Bad Land was a New York Times Editors’ Choice for Book of the Year, the winner of Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, and the winner of the PEN West Creative Nonfiction Award.

I feel that all of this is deserved. It’s an excellent, excellent book.

Funny story, though. I had already picked up a Jonathan Raban book and designated it part of my travel reading curriculum. I had even started reading it.

And I didn’t like it. It was slow and cumbersome, and turned out to be less of a “great wide American road-trip” novel like I had been expecting and more of a collection of rather lengthy essays where he never truly committed to the American road. I got through the first essay and a half, then hefted the weighty book in my hand and thought to myself, “Maybe another day.”

So when I saw Bad Land in my favorite used bookstore and happily noted it was about half the size of my original selection, I picked it up. I still dreaded reading the drooping prose, but at least there wouldn’t be nearly as much of it.

Bad Land falls into three categories per the inside flap: 1. West (U.S.) — History. 2. West (U.S.) — Description and travel. 3. Frontier and pioneer life — West (U.S.).

Assuming those are placed in order of topic dominance, I would switch 2 and 3 immediately, as I found this to be more of a history book than a travel book. Yes, Raban frequently traveled to the Midwest and, yes, he documented some of those trips, but mostly in little bits. The focus was not the travel, was not the experience of the “modern” man moving through the Midwest, but what happened in the early 1900s that shaped it into what it is now.

Which is a fascinating subject, should you care to read on it.

This book centers primarily around one of Raban’s friend’s families and their story of migrating to the Midwest, how it panned out for them, what was happening in other areas of the Midwest, and where they ultimately ended up. It spans over multiple decades, finally winding down to show the social impact of being the descendants of survivors of the Midwest and, yes, I can only call them survivors, as that is what they are.

What did I love about this book?

The topic. American history is a love of mine, and one that is not satiated nearly enough. The way Raban gathered research, the amount of memoirs he read, how many people he spoke to, how he traced the family he had chosen, all of it was so very deliberate and careful. It took history and humanized it.

Because of how we are taught, most of history is boiled into memorizing dates, a few dozen names, and more landmarks than anyone would ever care to know. We remove the emotional and social impact, we disassociate.

Raban refuses to disassociate, refuses to reduce his research into dates and river names. He says, “These were real people. Here is their story.” And it’s wonderful.

What didn’t I love?

Very little. There was one passage near the beginning of the book where he started speculating on an event that took place. Where people were standing, what they were feeling, their micro movements. Things that wouldn’t be available through any research. It came off as fantastical, as fictional, and it took Raban several chapters to regain my trust.

Trust within the read-writer relationship is vitally important. It allows the reader to let go, to be guided on whatever path the writer has set forth. The reader suspends disbelief, suspends questions, and places perfect trust in the story. That’s when the reader can “see” what the author writes about, when the words aren’t just type on a page, but being processed in that way that I still don’t understand, where one is almost living in a hallucination spun by someone else.

When you don’t trust an author, you don’t let yourself go into their hallucination. You don’t know what is there, what may surface, if you’ll enjoy it or be moved by it. So you stare at the text and read one word after another. It’s plodding and disconnected. But you have to watch out–you don’t know what the author will do next, and you have to be vigilant.

It’s unpleasant.

Anyway, that was one section. And the rest was easy and wonderful. I’m going to hang onto this one.