Originally Published on October 15th, 2017
In Nomadland, Jessica Bruder explores a rag tag group of roving campers who live day-to-day, finding short-term, menial labor at places such as RV parks and Amazon fulfillment centers. Many have lost their homes and/or their retirement nest eggs in the 2008 housing debacle and have scraped enough money to purchase rusty RVs, retro-fitted cargo vans, or other homes on wheels. They have either decided or been forced to discard America’s consumer culture, and they seek to live off the grid and under the radar. This is an unsettling but fascinating read that raises questions about America’s future.
The most dystopian sections of this nonfiction book are those that detail the backbreaking labor of the “workampers” inside the Amazon fulfillments centers. Many of these laborers are in their sixties, some in their seventies. The pace and pressure inside these centers often leads to exhaustion and injuries. Bruder took a position in one such center but didn’t last very long, and the stories from inside these centers read like they are taking place in prisons or work camps.
Many of these “vandwellers” are people who have realized they can’t afford retirement in their homes and have decided to live on four wheels. They often find their inspiration in John Steinbeck’s writing, In fact, many of these travelers share dog-eared copies of Steinbeck’s book, “Travels with Charley,” and publish their own personal travel blogs. They keep in touch through Facebook groups, coordinating loose knit tribes that often gather for short periods of time in southwest communities with names such as Slab City, where they learn how to live frugally and help each other in this underground economy.
One of those featured in the book is Bob Wells, who “suggests vandwellers are conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupting social order. Whether or not they chose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.”
Bruder stumbled onto this Vonnegut quote which vandwellers share –
….Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters.
In the end, Bruder’s travels with this American sub-culture leads her to ask the basic question: “What parts of this life are you willing to give up, so you can keep on living?”
I’d classify Nomadland as dystopian nonfiction. I hate to suggest you should order the book from Amazon, so I’ll recommend you pick it up from your local library or independent bookstore.