Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century
© 2017 Jessica Bruder
America has always been a nation on the move, but some people take that more literally than others. Nomadland takes us into the aftermath of the great recession, as the collapse of the housing market and serial firm closures crushed hopes for a secure future and reduced many to poverty. Some took to the road, and became part of a growing migrant community, of adults who live in vans and RVs and chase seasonal employment, from strawberry harvests in the summer to Amazon holiday crunches in the late fall. Although not everyone who chooses the Van Life is a victim of the great recession, Bruder makes that population her focus, with eye-opening results.
The van life has distinct advantages for those in a bind — allowing nomads to drastically reduce their expenses, to the point that many become debt free.The constant traveling allows for daily variation, and unique recreational opportunities, including massive rallies and trade meets where RVers and van-dwellers mix with old friends. Against this there are the challenges: the usual road hazards, of course, in addition to often punishing work, varied as it is. Vehicle breakdowns are far more serious, as putting a van in the shop means being homeless for a few days. For those are still financially unstable, a mechanical failure can be catastrophically disruptive. Although many van-dwellers embrace their status as people who flit on the margins, bidding a sweet farewell to the rat race and daily tedium, others regard their transition into the life as a fall from grace.. Particularly sobering, when a reader visits all these stories, is the idea that this kind of poverty can happen to most everyone: many van-dwellers held very comfortable upper-middle class positions before they encountered disaster.
Nomadland has an entertaining veer-and-lurch narrative: Jessica Bruder desperately wants to write about how the great recession and prolonged economic despair is turning millions of Americans into a perpetual migrant underclass, plug-in workers who appear and disappear at at the convenience of Big Bad Corporations’ logistics departments. Her particular subjects are foisted into the van and RV life because of financial woes, like the recession or being looted in divorces. Something happens to these people on the road, though, including Bruder’s star subject Linda. By necessity, they economize and minimize, and are compelled to focus only on what’s important; the mental fog from day to day distractions disappears. The same circumstances also compel them to become increasingly self-reliant, as they effect repairs on their own or create workarounds to various problems they encounter. The result is a growing sense of freedom and empowerment: they suddenly become not economic losers, but creative rebels who have through ingenuity and a willingness to to take chances, found a way to escape the rat race. Time and again Bruder returns to the poor-victims narrative, only for it derailed by the obvious pleasure and meaning that these migrants are finding in their new life, despite its challenges and difficulties.
Howevermuch Bruder and her subjects wrestle over the story being told, there’s no denying that Bruder was seriously committed to the work at hand. She spends at least three years engaged in active research, at first living in a tent in migrant communities but then upgrading to a van of her own so she can fully participate in the life. She knows both the first-timer’s fear at stealth-camping, and the pain of long hours at an Amazon fulfillment center. Although she most assuredly meets van-dwellers who are markedly different from her, her compassion for the plight of those struggling to recover from setbacks never falters — and it is that concern that makes her chronic attempts to steer the narrative back to misery and away from the undeniable freedom these people have found, generally forgivable. Nomadland is absolutely fascinating reading.