Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
Nomadland may have been published in 2017, but with inflation and other challenges in our country these days, it’s a very timely concept and fascinating read. Journalist Jessica Bruder initially went on her quest (three years and 15,000 miles!) to understand a newer phenomenon of mostly older people who embraced a transient lifestyle of “van-dwelling” (living full or part-time in a vehicle, such as a van or RV), which ramped up soon after the housing bubble/crash of 2008/09 and the resulting recession. Bruder interviewed many “nomads,” who were seeking a more affordable and “free” lifestyle. Her findings were first published in an article in Harper’s Magazine, but she had so much material that she was able to produce a full book. Movie fans will remember the amazing 2020 film by the same name, which won Frances McDormand an Academy Award. But in nonfiction form, the material is really rich in detail and in the interactions Bruder, a professor of Journalism at Columbia University, had with those she interviewed.
Many of the travelers move to where the work is and where they can park their wheeled homes, such as campgrounds, RV parks, and even Wal-Mart parking lots (regarding the latter, many ask: is the retailer being generous, or enjoying built-in customers?) They work seasonal jobs such as state and national park attendants and, before and during the busy holiday season, Amazon warehouses. While interviewing many “nomads,” Bruder found a common theme: low pay and mistreatment of workers (if this book doesn’t swear you off Amazon for good, nothing will). Bruder combines the personal stories with additional information about specific labor rights cases, including one that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. After the end of shifts for the temps at Amazon warehouses, workers (called the “CamperForce”) were “checked out” and searched to make sure they hadn’t stolen anything. The lines for this humiliating practice could be more than 30 minutes long, and of course they happened after workers clocked out. Sadly, the Court did not rule in the workers’ favor in a case that seems to be a clear-cut example of wage theft, as the “check-out” was mandatory and happened during work time. Amazon advertised these jobs as a time to “meet friends and make some cash,” like a camp, and left out the part about back-breaking work and injuries to feet (the concrete floors do a number on them, as warehouse workers walk miles per day). While the official CamperForce program was discontinued in December 2022, RVers continue in seasonal work under the same conditions.
Bruder also chronicles the output of “influencers” in this lifestyle, first on listservs and then in Facebook groups in more recent times. The online blogs and groups run by people who are well-known in the movement are a place to share tips and advice. Websites like CheapRVliving.com (run by Bob Wells from Alaska) also give ideas on where to park and travel.
One of the book’s strengths is the profiles of the many humans who are just trying to make a good life, and many, mistreated or not, have amazing work ethics and attitudes. It’s hard not to be both inspired and furious on their behalf. Bruder describes how Amazon warehouses are so hot that workers may pass out, but instead of solving that, they hired private ambulances to be at the ready outside the facilities, as apparently that’s more cost-effective. Many workers spoke about the physical toll these jobs have on the body, and these are people mostly in their 60s and above. But Linda, who Bruder focuses on quite a bit, said this about her time at Amazon: “If I live through this, I’ll be in great shape! I keep thinking of The Biggest Loser, and if they can do it, so can I!” Linda has a “happy ending” as the book wraps up that readers can find inspiring.
High rents and low Social-Security benefits are among the reasons people are traveling to find work, and these problems are only on the rise, heading toward crisis. Many lost everything in the recession after the crash of 2008, with the situation exacerbated by employers skipping pensions in favor cheaper 401(k) plans. The book quotes economist Teresa Ghilarducci as saying that while Social Security is now the largest single source of income for most Americans 65 and over, it’s “woefully inadequate. Nearly half of middle-class workers may be forced to live on a food budget of $5 a day when they retire.” Reading this in 2023, with food prices currently skyrocketing, was chilling. A typical retirement is a dream for the few.
However, despite the hard-luck stories and employment nightmares, the book has positive moments. The “nomads” stick together and help one another, forming a strong community. For example, if someone has a bad month, they pass the hat, knowing that their turn may come at some point. They enjoy the company, especially at gatherings (akin to reunions) that happen in the Arizona desert, where they cook out, play music, and enjoy the camaraderie. The book is an in-depth look at one way to live, which despite the hardships, often seems better than being in a lonely retirement apartment without any adventure, but absolutely does not sugarcoat it.