If you’re in a city but you live in a van, or a trailer, or a tent, you are considered homeless.
But if you’re in the desert or the forest, you’re camping.
Rationalizations such as these are what make “Nomadland” such a compelling look at a weirdly camouflaged swath of society that’s more entwined around us than we realize.
Author Jessica Bruder, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, immersed herself among those who move between seasonal jobs at a time when they’d imagined contemplating retirement, but life went haywire.
Change often began with a job layoff. Then they downsized, still fell behind and finally realized that their earlier lives cannot be reclaimed. Losers? Sure, some have made bad decisions. But most simply have lost, for reasons over which they had no control.
So they’ve become nomads, finding temporary work during the sugar beet harvest in North Dakota, or in Amazon fulfillment centers, or as campground hosts. Bruder is struck by their resiliency and humor. They reject the term “homeless,” instead calling themselves “houseless,” owning “wheel estate.” Far from loners, they have created community. Some call it their “vanily.”
And it’s growing.
Much of the book is shaped around Linda May, a 65-year-old grandmother who lives in a small trailer she tows with a totaled-and-salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee. We meet her on the way to a summer’s stint as a campground host, where she’ll pick up trash, clean toilets three times a day, greet campers and hopefully not have to police them too much. As a returning host, she’ll earn $9.35 an hour and get a free campsite.
May is a hoot, spirited and game, even as she dreads the physical toll that she knows her next gig at an Amazon warehouse will exact. “Beneath the fatigue, however, was a slow-dawning sense of pride,” Bruder wrote. “She felt self-sufficient and free.”
These nomads are not necessarily to be pitied. They are inventive and savvy, frugal and generous. When they gather at a campground for bring-your-own-topping baked potato night, they are, as one put it, “hiding in plain sight.”
Bruder is gentle with them, not judging nor theorizing too much about consequences to follow.
Still, upon returning home to Brooklyn after a summer on the road, she’s taken aback by the camper vans and travel trailers on the streets. She’d never paid them much mind, but now recognizes the signs of human habitation.
“What further contortions – or even mutations – of the social order will appear in years to come?” she asks. “How many people will get crushed by the system? How many will find a way to escape it?”
This is important, eye-opening journalism, presented for us to contemplate: What if?
By Jessica Bruder
W.W. Norton, 273 pages