Books: The Haunting of Open Spaces

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Review: Hardware and Software, January 1997

Books: The Haunting of Open Spaces
By Miles Harvey

Bad Land: An American Romance, by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon, $25). When Ismay, Montana, became Joe, Montana, in 1993--a short-lived attempt to cash in on the name of a certain football star--most journalists treated it as an amusing human interest story. But Raban, author of the best-selling travelogue Old Glory and a recent contributor to Outside, sees it as part of an important "episode in the history of failure in America." In this astute and resonant book, Raban wanders through the desolate villages arbitrarily built by the Milwaukee Road as it laid tracks across eastern Montana 90 years ago. "The railroad magnates, speculatively doodling a society into existence, were like novelists," Raban observes, flinging "ready-made communities...and infant cities into being" on the vacant plains. But the tale they wrote turned out to be a tragedy, its protagonists, mostly immigrants or members of religious minorities, lured to the cold, arid rangeland by propaganda that falsely promised moderate weather and bountiful harvests. Digging through old documents and interviewing relatives, Raban creates a rich portrait of the lives of these early-twentieth-century homesteaders--from Evelyn Cameron, an English farmwife who became one of the great photographers of the American West, to the Zehm family, Seventh-Day Adventists who believed that Montana's devastating droughts and insect plagues were sure signs of the Second Coming. Bad Land, however, is no whimsical foray into local history. Raban trenchantly demonstrates how today's Western radicalism--whether practiced by Randy Weaver or David Koresh or the Militia of Montana--is the "perverse legacy of the homesteading experience and its failure on the plains." When the early settlers realized they had invested their lives in unproductive land, he explains, "some people began to see themselves as victims of a conspiracy. Government and big business had worked hand in glove to stiff the homesteaders"--a notion that evidently stuck. Raban is himself an English immigrant, a status that gives him both empathy for his subjects and an outsider's perspective on "a story so American that some Americans would not recognize it as a story." Perhaps, but this penetrating book clearly proves it to be a story worth telling.

The River at the Center of the World: A Journey up the Yangtze, and Back in Chinese Time, by Simon Winchester (Henry Holt, $27.50). Running 3,500 miles through the heart of China, the Yangtze is arguably the most formidable river on the planet, with one-twelfth of the world's population living in its watershed and a long history of ten-foot tidal waves and calamitous floods. In 1995, Winchester, a wise and wisecracking observer of Asian culture, embarked on an epic adventure to trace the length of the river. Starting in the bustling "philistine metropolis" of Shanghai, Winchester makes stops in such fascinating--and disturbing--places as Nanjing, where a former Japanese death camp is now home to a Rolls-Royce dealership, and the Three Gorges region, where the government is moving forward with plans to build an environmentally risky dam that would displace more than a million people. Winchester also finds plenty of time for laughs, whether he's wandering the decks of Chairman Mao's dilapidated yacht or contemplating a local custom in which the de-boned remains of giant pigs are used as mattresses for 12 years before being eaten. After wending his way across virtually the entire width of China, Winchester stands high on the Tibetan Plateau and lights a cigar, "the best smoke I could ever imagine." It's a sense of gratification that readers of this wonderfully entertaining travelogue will no doubt share.

No Hands: The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, an American Institution, by Judith Crown and Glenn Coleman (Henry Holt, $25). In the late 1970s, as the first mountain bikers were screaming down California's Mount Tamalpais on self-designed junkyard clunkers, a young innovator named Gary Fisher was visited by engineers from Chicago's Schwinn Bicycle Company. "This guy in his fifties was looking down at me like I was some jerk kid who didn't know anything," Fisher remembers. Unimpressed, the Schwinn techies went home, dismissing fat-tire riding and Fisher's mongrel bikes as a passing craze. But, as Crown and Coleman point out, it proved to be "the wrong fad to ignore." By the late 1980s, mountain bikes accounted for nearly two-thirds of the adult bicycle market--and the business that had been the big wheel of the American bicycle industry since 1895 found itself lurching toward bankruptcy. Crown and Coleman, journalists on the staff of Crain's Chicago Business, document Schwinn's decline as well as its recent re-emergence under new ownership in extensive and at times excessive financial detail. Nonetheless, No Hands rarely fails to fascinate, thanks to the authors' obvious passion for the company that "is synonymous with bicycle in many Americans' minds." When they write, for instance, that "a surly teenager could ride the crap out of his Varsity, taking it off the beaten suburban sneak a smoke," we know they've been on that bike. We have, too--which may be why No Hands is such an enjoyable ride.

The Book of Yaak, by Rick Bass (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95). "I know I've been behaving badly...but I can't help it," writes Bass. A noted fiction writer and essayist, Bass has recently found himself in the role of political "zealot"--passing out mimeographed manifestos at weddings and christenings, launching into humorless environmental diatribes at cocktail parties, and pestering strangers to write Congress. It's all part of an effort to halt corporate clear-cutting in northwestern Montana's Yaak Valley, Bass's beleaguered backyard wilderness that's home to the endangered grizzly bear and gray wolf. The Book of Yaak is the latest step in his activist campaign--nearly 200 pages of information and exhortation about why Congress should create a reserve to keep the Yaak's last roadless acres out of the timber industry's reach. Bass concedes that this is a "sourcebook," not a work of art, and notes that he'd rather be writing fiction--"but there are thousands of fiction writers...and only one Yaak." It's not great literature, but it is effective agitprop that will no doubt inspire readers to send their own zealous letters to Capitol Hill.

Copyright 1997, Outside magazine

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