On Rereading Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I read this book just over two years ago; you can read the review on this website. What got me thinking about the book again was finding out that it had been made into a film starring Frances McDormand. My initial thought was: how can you make a film out of a book like this? And then I thought: why not? If done properly, it can be a compelling, heart-gripping story of people in distress, and evidently the filmmakers have done it well judging by the awards it has already picked up at film festivals.

As I explain in my previous review, the book touched me profoundly. I had already been wondering about life on the road as opposed to holing up in one place in my old age. I had been daydreaming about, when the kids were grown and gone, getting a van and taking off for who knew where. My musings became so intense and detailed that I have turned them into novels. The first, The Senescent Nomad, which was published in 2019, tells of a writer who, finally on his own, buys and outfits a van, abandons his apartment in Seattle and most of his possessions, and takes off on the road. His initial destination is a science fiction convention in San Diego to which he has been invited as a panelist. On the way he learns what it is like to live on the road full time and meets numerous fascinating characters, including a few lovers. In the second novel, The Senescent Nomad Seeks a Home, he has second thoughts about van life and looks for more stationary accommodations as he travels back up the coast from San Diego to the Puget Sound area. This novel will hopefully be published in late 2020. A third volume is in the planning stages.

Reading Nomadland a second time left me still double-minded about living on the road full time. Of course many of the people that Bruder describes in the book have no choice. They live in vehicles because they have nowhere else to go; they can’t afford to pay rent for an apartment or house. If I had a choice, though, what I would like is the best of both worlds: a humble cottage somewhere outside the city and a camper van in which I could take extended trips around the North American continent. If circumstances forced me into a van, I think I could get by okay; I have done extensive camper travel in the past, although entirely in southern Europe.

Reading this book again was every bit as marvelous as the first read. The only disappointment I felt was coming close to the end of it and the dread anticipation that the wonderful experience would soon be over. However, as I read of the fascinating though difficult lives of these nomadic people in the pre-pandemic days, I wondered how difficult it must be for them now amidst coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions. Where would they go and what would they do? Many of the places where they usually obtain seasonal work would be shuttered. Additionally, they would be joined on the road by countless others who lost their jobs and then their housing. I can’t imagine that it would be a good time to be nomadic.

I browsed some of the websites I had researched while writing The Senescent Nomad to try to find out what’s happening. Some of them seem to be on hiatus or ignoring the pandemic, but on others I found out that full-time nomads are isolating the best they can in solitude or in small enclaves. Some have gone into isolation in the homes of relatives or friends. Bob Wells, a renowned van dweller and longtime road nomad, is heading up a nonprofit called Homes on Wheels Alliance, which tries to help neophyte nomads get set up with tents or vans and acclimatize them to life outside the grid. Still, the situation is grim for the nomadic community.

In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of this book, which documents a large community of travelers, many of them elderly, that lives outside the so-called normal systems of society. More and more of us may be forced into such lifestyles in the coming months and years. My hope is that people in fixed homes become more tolerant and helpful towards these nomads and that some sort of infrastructure builds up to make their lives easier.

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