'I am not a travel writer,' Jonathan Raban said in a recent interview. 'For me, "travel writer" means someone who samples other people's holidays - you talk about the food, the hotel, throw in a bit of local colour. If I thought that was the business I was in, I'd slit my throat.' Bad Land, Raban's new book about Montana, examines the present remains and historical origins of the last great wave of American western settlement, the migration of homesteaders to eastern Montana in the first decade of this century. Once flourishing, their farms are now in ruins: 'fenceposts, trailing a few whiskers of wire - the body of a Studebaker ... stripped of its wheels and engine ... a harrow deep in the grass ... houses, cars, machinery ... fading rapidly off the land'. In one collapsing house Raban found a sheaf of manuscript pages showing debts mounting from a few dollars payable to the Bureau of Land Management, Sears Roebuck and Kyle's Radiator Shop, to horrific arrears on bank loans - the debts totalled well over $5000. When they pulled out, the failed homesteaders simply left their household goods behind - the Frigidaire, the parlour furniture, the ironing-board - but they took great pains to make a bonfire of their family photographs.
LRB 12 December 1996 | PDF Download