January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

by Jonathan Raban

Subtitled An American Romance, this engaging history of Montana, like many a love affair, is a story of dreams, deceit and heartbreak. Raban begins with the homesteaders who seized the U.S. government’s 1909 offer of 320 free acres in the great plains of Montana and the Dakotas. Trouble was, they had been seduced by false promises of fertile soil made by railways and banks that wanted to sustain their own westward expansion. The settlers came, farmed and failed, victims of what Raban calls, the land’s “dry, hollocky emptiness.”

Combing the ruins of abandoned homes, sifting through diaries and photographs from the period, Raban does a fine job portraying the settlers’ lives and the hopes that turned to despair. Many moved to Seattle (the British-born Raban’s adopted home); those who still loved the land and chose to remain left a mixed legacy. In the book’s final chapters, Raban notes the fierce self-sufficiency that infects the state’s inhabitants today; its most virulent strain can be seen in the paranoid rage of the Militiamen extremists. His Montana is not Big Sky country, but a Bad Land indeed. (Pantheon, $25)

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