Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a fascinating look at a lifestyle that’s gotten quite a bit more common in recent years but that most people are still ignorant of. Due to a stagnant and shrinking economy, more and more people have been compelled to live in vans, RVs, and other vehicles. Jessica Bruder takes an in-depth look at one part of this subculture -the mostly older, vehicle-dwelling people who work at seasonal jobs at places such as Amazon warehouses.
One of the interesting things about Nomadland is that it covers a subculture completely invisible to most people. I’ve been fascinated by nomadic lifestyles for many years but I didn’t know how many older Americans were living this way. Like Bruder, before she started researching this book, I always assumed that almost all people in RVs were retirees enjoying a leisurely existence touring the nation. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. More and more people are unable to retire and are compelled to work until they literally cannot anymore.
Nomadland looks at many aspects of the “workamper” lifestyle – the low-paying and physically challenging jobs that people work at as well as the emerging social communities that have emerged, which include gatherings of campers who’ve gotten to know each other over the years.
The book centers on one such person, Linda May, a woman in her 60s who lives in a camper and works at various seasonal jobs such as Amazon, working beet farms, and managing campsites. We follow along with Bruder as Linda May makes friends, deals with injuries from her stressful jobs, contends with vehicle problems and, most interestingly makes plans to realize her dream of buying cheap land and creating an off-the-grid “Earthship.”
Jessica Bruder immerses herself in this lifestyle, getting on the road with her own van and even taking some of the jobs she describes. What’s refreshing about Nomadland is that it presents a truly balanced view of the nomadic way of life. This is a lifestyle that can easily be romanticized or dismissed as mere poverty and homelessness. In fact, it’s a fascinating combination of the two, with people often veering from euphoria to despair from one moment to the next.
America has long had a fascination with life on the road and getting free of the system. In modern times, it may have started with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, but the sentiment surely dates back even further. As the book recounts, during the Great Depression, many people were forced into rootless lives. As the book also points out, the line between being a free-spirited nomad and simply homeless can be hard to delineate.
Apart from its insights on these new nomads, the book sheds light on some other unsavory aspects of the modern economy. We see, for example, how the online behemoth Amazon takes advantage of these workers’ often desperate situations to ensure an endless supply of cheap labor. Amazon warehouses often have near-sweatshop conditions and when you consider that many of the workers are well over 60, it reveals more about the modern economy than many of us want to know. Increasingly, it’s not just slave labor in China and other faraway places that are being exploited for cheap goods; its people right in America as well.
The way things are going, we can expect more and more people to become workampers and other types of nomads. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. There are aspects of this lifestyle that are liberating, as many of the people Bruder interviewed point out. One problem is that this society currently has an extreme prejudice against the nomadic lifestyle. The government, banks, and other institutions make it hard to function without a fixed address. Then there’s the constant threat of being harassed by police as more and more places outlaw parking in public places.
As affordable housing becomes ever more scarce, society has to come to terms with the fact that many people no longer can afford to have a permanent home, at least the way they are currently defined. Other solutions also need to be explored, such as turning abandoned buildings into affordable housing and easing zoning restrictions on tiny houses and other low-cost dwellings.
Nomadland is a great introduction to a subculture that’s likely to grow in the near future.
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Nomadland: The Documentary
Nomadland later became a documentary. I also did a review of the movie on Movies Indie, another of my sites. While the movie was also interesting, it deviated a bit from the principles in the book. For one thing, it skipped many of the criticisms of Amazon warehouses, most likely because Amazon allowed filming in one of their facilities. The book portrays Amazon as exploitative of low income workers while the doc casts the company in a more favorable light.
Nomadland: movie review (and link to podcast)