Book Review: Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Let’s start this out the right way: It’s not hyperbole to say that this book hit me more profoundly, personally, and viscerally than any other book I’ve read in the past few years. One other possible contender about which I’ve written recently is How to Change Your Mind, but that’s about it. I stumbled across Nomadland by chance at the library when I was browsing through the large-print nonfiction section. I look to large-print books sometimes not only because they’re easier on the eyes, but also because others don’t think to look there, and I can often find popular recent books that have long reserve lists in the regular section. Damn, now the secret’s out.

Bruder’s book deals with a cast-aside segment of American society: itinerant workers who wander in RVs, campers, vans, and cars from temp job to temp job, trying to survive the best they can in the cracks through which they have fallen in the system. Most of them are elderly, and many were part of the middle or upper middle class with comfortable homes and well-paying jobs until fiscal disaster struck: for some, the recession of 2007 to 2009 wiped out their retirement savings; or their Social Security payments were grossly inadequate to deal with skyrocketing rental costs; or they were laid off from their jobs; or they suffered a medical emergency such as an accident or illness; or they went through a nasty divorce and lost their home. Regardless of their circumstances, they ultimately found themselves living in their vehicles and roaming from place to place trying to survive.

Although Bruder sketches a picture of people drawn together by circumstance building a joyful community on the road, the book is suffused with tragedy. These are not vacationers or comfortable retirees; they are old folks who have been forced out on to the road to eke out an existence roaming from one backbreaking minimum-wage job to the next. They face filth, hunger, loneliness, hoodlums, and laws that increasingly target homeless people as criminals just because they have no fixed address. The author points out that they do not consider themselves homeless but houseless. They feel at home in their vehicles surrounded by others who are in similar predicaments. However, at the end of the book, an elderly woman named Linda who has been one of the main focal characters is weary of life on the road and can think of nothing better than buying a cheap plot of land in a remote corner of the Arizona desert, building a small home, and settling down.

Why did this book hit me so hard? Apart from the fact that it’s fascinating and well-written, I identify with these disenfranchised people. I’m in my sixties and poor. I dump all the money I make and more that I manage to scrounge up into rent, bills, food, and household needs. I’ve daydreamed of getting back out on the road, but it’s not a choice for me now, as I am a single parent and want to see my youngest son at least through high school before I change situations. Still, as I said, I have envisioned myself roaming American in a camper van, although in my imagination I have enough money to get by comfortably so that I can write full-time and not take on outside jobs.

I have a lot of experience camping out in vehicles – but in Europe, not here in the States. I traveled all over Italy in various types of campers and vans in all sorts of weather and terrain. Eventually, when our family moved from Italy back to Greece, we bought a Mercedes camper van and drove there. My wife, our three young sons, and I lived in the van for months on the road in southern Greece until we finally found an apartment in Athens. I used to love living in campers: the adventure, the constant changes of scenery, meeting new people. And my particular thrill: being snug and warm in the van while heavy rain drums on the roof.

I was younger then, though, and southern Europe is a far cry from the United States. I always felt safe on the road in Europe, and it was easy to find places to park. People were respectful and hospitable; there was none of the stigma of homelessness that is so prevalent here. I don’t know if I would feel so joyous and free roaming the roads in America. As I mentioned earlier, people have an irrational distrust of those with no fixed dwelling. They fear what they don’t understand. And often they lash out at what they fear, either legally or with vigilante actions.

I don’t know what my personal future holds, but this book gave me great sympathy for the many elderly homeless who are forced out onto the road by circumstance. It illuminates a segment of society of which many are unaware. Someday we’re all going to age, folks, and many of us may be exposed to difficulties such as those described in this book. Those who want to remain nomads should be treated with respect, not approbation, and there should be places to go for those who want to come in off the road.

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