The Beatrice Interview

Jonathan Raban

Shipwreck Stories on the High Plains

interviewed by Ron Hogan

Jonathan Raban is the acclaimed author of seagoing narratives such as Old Glory and Foreign Land. In his latest book, Bad Land, he moves far inland, examining some of the stories of the men and women who settled the Dakota and Montana plains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

RH: Right in the opening scene, there's a strong parallel between the prairies and the high seas about which you've written so much before, and you've mentioned that thematic continuity in several interviews.

JR: Well, this is a shipwreck story. Everybody in the nineteenth century was writing about the prairie as a 'sea of grass,' and the problem with that analogy is that it's a great cliche, but most of the people who used it didn't knew peanuts about the sea. They were content to say that it was like the sea in that it had a sea-like expanse, but I see the prairie as being like the sea in other, very particular ways.

The sea is fantastically eventful; it's full of waves, and every wave is different from every other one. It's astounding how rarely waves repeat themselves. And the lie of the land is like that as well. It's full of features, but not conspicuous features. You can't rely on them any more than you could tell your direction by looking at one particular wave on the ocean. And I decided to try to write about the prairie with the same degree of detail that I'd previously used in writing about the sea.

But one of the most sea-like things about the prairie is that it's dotted with wrecks. Houses, many of them built with the same care and affection that ships were built with.

RH: You use so many primary resources in writing this book, including books that you find in abandoned houses, it's almost like going through the flotsam of a shipwreck, salvaging relics of the past.

JR: That's a nice thought, which actually hadn't occurred to me before. Scuba diving on the prairie.

RH: The glimpses of the culture those books provide is fascinating, particularly some of the children's books.

JR: Self-conscious writers, those who are writing for posterity or 'literature,' often write so that much of what you discover in the book is what they wanted you to discover. But there's a kind of text, especially some of the books written for schoolchildren, that gives away so much more about its culture because it's totally unself- conscious.

For example, my favorite primary source, Campbell's Soil Culture Manual, is a homilectic work, a classic of Puritan work ethic idealism. Its whole pseudo-science is based on straight Presbyterianism wrapped up in science; the so-called science of dry farming was all about conservation: "save, save, save, save." The whole thing is about saving rain, conserving moisture, applying Calvinist retentiveness to the rainfall. The problem is that what he told people to do was, according to the current agricultural theories, the surest possible way of letting whatever moisture there was in the land straight out again.

RH: It's fascinating to see the mixture of despair and optimism in the homesteaders as the soil dries up, as the dream doesn't come true for them. This book shatters our happy myths about America's push West.

JR: It's a powerful twentieth century story. When many Americans think of pioneers, they seem to think of powerful creatures who aren't really human at all, rugged, hardy people. That makes the pioneers so distant and remote to us, glossed over in a nineteenth century that might just as well be the Pleistocene era. One of the appealing aspects of this story is the pioneers of the early Machine Age, the pioneers with the first Maytags and Model Ts -- these people were totally hooked on gizmos, looking through papers to find out about the latest gadgets.

RH: What initially attracted you to this region?

JR: My friend Michael Wollaston showed me a manuscript that his father had written about his memoirs of growing up on the prairie, which I thought was more vivid and more carefully written than any other first-person homsteader narrative I'd seen before. Eventually, the two of us went looking for his father's childhood homestead.

It was while I was there, looking at a land the likes of which I had never seen before, that I thought, Christ, people came out here from places like England. They had a dream about what it was going to be like in America, and then got deposited into this enormity. It was the archetype of the immigrant's encounter with the New World. You couldn't get more of a New World than this place, something that just defeats all your senses, your habits of thinking about landscape. How could you, deposited here from a train, learn to call it home -- and that's the ultimate question for immigrants, isn't it?

RH: You certainly seem to have come to terms with being alienated in America in your six years here.

JR: Well, they gave me this lovely title, "resident alien," on my green card. I guess every writer is a resident alien in his own country; I certainly always felt I was in England, but it's wonderful to have the INS give me a formal title that I can use -- "What are you?" "Well, I'm a resident alien." It's an alienation that one doesn't have to strive for.

RH: Another important aspect to this story is the constant struggle between the individualists and the government over who's going to control the land.

JR: It seems like the government needed to get people into debt to bring them into the social lie. There's nothing like saddling people with all sorts of monthly payments for turning them into responsible citizens. And boy, did these people have monthly payments. The ones who made it through, and whose descendants still live there today, are the people who did not submit to the blandishments of the smiling bank managers, who didn't take on a big debt, didn't get into the waste of the machinery. If you talk to people now, they'll often tell you that their fathers and grandfathers were still plowing with horses long after everybody else had bought the tractors that eventually bankrupted them into starvation. Or they were the sort of strongly religious people who saw all the inclement weather, and the droughts, and the plagues of grasshoppers, as proof that they were living in the last days, that the Lord would be coming with a flourish of trumpets and the horsemen of the Apocalypse would be riding into eastern Montana, and that that was a good reason for them to stay.

RH: What's next for you?

JR: The book that I dropped to write this was set at sea. What it lacked, what caused me to put it aside, was a narrative spine. It was going out in too many directions, and although I'd written about fifty or sixty pages, it didn't seem to be developing an internal momentum. Each new page was an awful labor, and I feel that if a book really needs to be written, then it ought to be writing itself at that stage.

But I want very much to write another book about the sea. The sea is a vital part of our culture, and how we interpret it, how we position ourselves in relation to it, changes radically from one period to the next. And as I was finishing Bad Land, I realized that was this book had been missing was a sense of a real voyage, not just a physical voyage but a voyage along a line of enquiry. And I spent a good portion of this summer sailing from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, alone, and that trip is the narrative spine on which I can build a story about the sea.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Peter Maass | Colin Fletcher

All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan