Improved Earth: Prairie Space as Modern Artefact, 1869–1944


204 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-8020-8782-5
DDC 307.72'097124





Reviewed by Michael Payne

Michael Payne is the City of Edmonton archivist and the co-author of A
Narrative History of Fort Dunvegan.


This book addresses how the settlement of the Canadian West,
particularly rural Saskatchewan, involved the creation of a cultural
landscape. Bantjes, an associate professor at St. Francis Xavier
University, suggests that this organizing of a physical space into a
cultural artefact was based on very specific ideas of modernity, and
involved the formation of a particular set of class relations and
political and economic structures, in addition to a transformation of
the very landscape itself.

The author bases his argument on a number of interconnected theoretical
works, including, among others, those of Karl Marx, E.P. Thompson,
Michel Foucault, Anthony Giddens, and David Harvey. Although the text is
relatively short, the book also includes more than 30 pages of endnotes,
several of which are virtually mini-essays on their own, and a
bibliography of equivalent length and comprehensiveness. The result is
not an easy read, even for people with a strong background in
contemporary academic theory. However, readers who persevere should find
interesting ideas and insights on offer.

The book includes some intriguing discussion of alternative approaches
to the section, township, and range system of land survey that reduced
the Prairies to a rigid geometry of grid lines. We can only speculate
now about what might have happened had some of the ideas of the
garden-cities movement or radial plans for rural townships been adopted.
Similarly Bantjes discusses the organization of local government in
rural areas and suggests that the rural municipality system was
remarkably “responsive to the local but still politically effective at
the provincial level.”

The central point of the book, however, is that Prairie farm families
embraced a very particular form of modernism that produced the
characteristic, but culturally created, Prairie landscape of
“thousands of acres of land devoted to single crops in vast monochrome


Bantjes, Rod., “Improved Earth: Prairie Space as Modern Artefact, 1869–1944,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 17, 2024,