Bad Land: An American Romance is a travelogue of Jonathan Raban's research into the settlement of southeastern Montana in the early 20th Century. The focus of the book is on the area between Marmarth, ND and Terry, MT along the route of the Milwaukee Road railroad and the goings on of various settler families who homesteaded in that area.
Further into the book, the author describes the settlement in terms of a grand experiment to impose civilization on a previously wild region. The society of that period is portrayed as one filled with innocent optimism and feelings of unlimited potential to be part of big, important things. This is represented in the book by the barbed wire fence and set piece, half-section farm plots of 320 acres.
The author further delves into the societal development of the settlers by describing many details of the aforementioned society after it becomes established. The Montana plains society is depicted as one that seems to be realizing its dreams, attracting people and commerce, and having all the trappings of an American frontier settlement. It is clearly indicated that this society is at its apex.
Reality comes crashing down on the settlers when, as the author puts it, the land asserts its wild self, throwing off the civilization imposed on it. The settlers realize that the land could not support the number of people who were trying to make a living from it. Because many of the settlers felt they had been betrayed by those who convinced them to move to the area and farm there, another societal development is observed: a fiercely independent and rebellious attitude of antiauthoritarian distrust towards Corporate America (The Milwaukee Road) and to a much greater extent, the United States Government. As the realization sets in that the land can't support everyone, many are seen leaving-selling their land to those who chose to stay and continue farming.
The downward spiral of the once bustling civilization is seen as having stabilized by the present day. This status quo is one of uneasy teetering between subsistence and poverty. Such is the desperation to "become something" again that some are willing to attempt anything to attract cheap attention, publicity, visitors, and above all, outside commerce and money. The utter disappointment and futility of such efforts are summed up in the Ismay/Joe, MT efforts.
The book concludes with the author returning home to Seattle, WA from southeastern Montana and following the paths of many who left the area featured in the book. The author expresses joy to be living in a place where reality isn't so sharp, but also reminds himself that not far from where he lives and even in his own backyard, there are places, situations, and circumstances that make his life uncomfortably similar to that of someone living in southeastern Montana.
The book is 324 pages long and contains themes, circumstances, and events that repeated themselves in rural areas and towns across the Great Plains during the time period covered.