When you hear the word nomad, what do you think of? The Bedouin in the Arabian desert? Now, what about American nomad? Maybe John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) comes to mind, dust bowl families on a wagon heading to California to escape poverty. Or, maybe the famous image of the migrant mother with her children captured by photographer Dorothea Lange (1936). Or in more recent years, Jeannette Walls’ family when she was a child in The Glass Castle (2005).
Journalist Jessica Bruder has followed some modern-day nomads and chronicled their lives in her 2017 book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. These are van and RV dwellers in California, Nevada, Arizona and several other Western States. Many of them are fallout of the 2008 financial meltdown when they lost their homes, jobs and investments. In the book, Bruder stayed close with them for a year, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells, LaVonne and many others, all in their 60’s and 70’s but still active as itinerant workers. What she has revealed in her book is eye-opening.
Linda is a sixty-four-year-old grandmother. She drives a salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. Towed behind the jeep is her home, a trailer she calls the “Squeeze Inn.” It’s a “fiberglass relic” built in 1974. Inside dimension is ten feet from end to end and room enough for Linda to stand up straight. “It’s 5’3” inside and I am 5’2”… Perfect fit,” she says. A positive outlook is the sustenance of the nomads Bruder has come to know personally in her research in situ.
Linda has worked as a Camp Host, which pays $8.50 per hour for her to welcome campers, settle them in, clean toilets, maintain campground, and be a service person and problem solver at all hours. She also belongs to CamperForce, an Amazon labour source made up of mostly workers in their 60’s and 70’s living in vans and trailers parked on RV lots near Amazon warehouses. When not walking miles on the concrete field of these warehouses during her 10-hour night shift, Linda would find work at outdoor crop harvests or camp sites.
In 2011, United States Gypsum shut down its mine in Empire, Nevada. As a result, the USG company town was emptied as its whole population rented their homes from the company. Empire became a ghost town, its Zip Code discontinued. Seventy miles to the south of Empire was a convergence of a different kind of town around Fernley. They were itinerant workers living in RV, trailers, and vans parked on RV lots. They belong to a population described by the new term ‘precariat’: temporary laborers doing short-term jobs for low wages.
In her book, Bruder points to Bob Wells’ influence on many of these homeowner-turned vandwellers. For twenty years, Wells has been preaching anti-consumerism. The guru of modern-day nomadic life spreads his message of simple and mortgage-free living on his YouTube channel and website CheapRVLiving.com, bonus is staying close to the land and nature, but above all, being self-sufficient. With the 2008 economic meltdown, many saw the positive message Wells was preaching.
Wells also created RTR, Rubber Tramp Rendevous, which takes place every January in Quartzsite, Arizona. It is a popular annual meet-up of campdwellers coming together for support, camaraderie, and education. There are seminars and classes to learn all sorts of essential knowledge and skills related to RV living or just general living. Some of these courses include solar cooking, get out of debt, living in small cars, and the art of stealth parking (puzzled? Google it)
Bruder’s book is a detailed coverage of a marginal population. It’s full of relevant statistics, background information and interviews, all approached and presented to highlight their humanity as she followed and befriended the vandwellers. We come to know them as respectable human beings seeking an alternative way of living away from the rat race. Unfortunately, their toiling inside humungous Amazon warehouses could well be an inevitable but poignant irony. It might not convert you to become a vandweller, but Bruder’s matter-of-fact reportage could have its effects in loosening our grip on consumerism and the necessities of living.
Now, can such a non-fiction book be turned into a movie? It’s been done and the feature film has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival which took place in their scaled-down, Pandemic mode. Indeed, Covid-19 has made us re-think many basic assumptions of life and modern day living. Nomadland the film has the power to shake us to the core.
Directed by Chloé Zhao (The Rider, 2017), a master in blending documentary and fiction, the film puts Bruder’s book subjects Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells onto the big screen. Two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017) mingles in with her self-effacing role as a vandweller, perfect casting in this inspiring docudrama. The cinematography is exceptional, the score soul-stirring. Look for it when it is released in December later this year.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder, W. W. Norton, New York, 2017, 273 pages.
My review of Nomadland the movie is now published on the film website Vague Visages. Free to read one day only Monday, September 28, 2020.
Don’t Just Drive Past Three Billboards
15 thoughts on “‘Nomadland’ by Jessica Bruder: A Book Review”
I’ve read Nomadland, amazed at the resilience of these people and horrified by Amazon.
A wonderful book with precise data and great humanity.
I’m looking forward to watching the film.
Nomadland will be screened at the New York Film Festival online, one night only on Sept. 26, 8 pm ET. Check out the webpage here. If you’re in the US, you can view it. Don’t miss it.
I’m in France but I’m confident it’ll be broadcasted in one of my local cinemas.
Presently it’s playing in the Film Festival circuit only until its general release in Dec. It will be at the Lumière FF in France October 13. Maybe you can view it online then. 🙂
Can you imagine that! I live in Lyon, where the Lumière Festival is. I’ll see if I can get some tickets.
That’s amazing, you’re in the US and recommending a film in my city in France. How cool is that?
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BTW, Emma, I’m in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. 🙂
I’ve heard of the film, not the book. It looks fascinating.
The film is playing in selective FF now and won’t be released until Dec. But then again, we don’t know what will happen then. 😦 Anyway, if you’ve got a chance, don’t miss it. My prediction is it will be an Oscar nom for Best Picture next year, and may even win it. Frances M. will likely get her third Best Actress nom.
I’ve seen The Rider, and liked it. I’ll be interested in seeing Nomadland. And in reading the book too. Thanks for bringing them to my attention.
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I watched it online at the mostly virtual Toronto Int. Film Festival a couple weeks ago. It’s as good as The Rider, and better. Hope you’ll have a chance to view it. Thanks for stopping by and throwing your two pebbles in the Pond.
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What has become of Linda with her earthship home?
No idea. Maybe Bruder can continue with her research.
Great to see your review of the book Arti. I loved the film, found it completely engrossing, not just because of the story and Frances McDormand’s wonderful as usual acting, but also because of people like Linda May (how photogenic is she) and Swanke too. Great faces, great characters. Zhao did a wonderful job.
BTW, we went to Quartzite and bought rocks there in the early 1990’s when our son was around 7 years old and “into” rocks. So I loved all the settings too. (Still haven’t been to the Dakotas though)
I think Bruder has done a great job ‘shadowing’ these nomads, a fine journalist she is. Hope she will have more works coming out. I’m very glad that she’ll be noted as an inspiration for Chloé Zhao. And if the film wins, she’ll be even more honored. About creating the character Fern (FM), herein we can see the skill and talent of Zhao in adapting the book into screenplay, and how deftly she has woven the fictional Fern into the other real life nomads’ lives. O, and one more thing. In my review of the film, now behind a pay wall for subscribers only, I did mention that Zhao has a Terrence Malick-esque styling. If I have the chance to see it again (can’t find it anywhere!) I’ll explore more about that comparison. My best wishes to her in the coming Academy Awards. 🙂
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