Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century is a very sad book. I feel very distressed about the disasters that have plagued many innocent, hard-working, honest, and intelligent people in our society, and about how little we collectively care about them.
In the introduction Bruder characterizes the life of her subjects:
"But for them—as for anyone—survival isn’t enough. So what began as a last-ditch effort has become a battle cry for something greater. Being human means yearning for more than subsistence. As much as food or shelter, we require hope. And there is hope on the road. It’s a by-product of forward momentum. A sense of opportunity, as wide as the country itself." (p. xiii).
The author is very aware of the literature of road trips and life on the road in America. I found books she mentioned to be very interesting (though I wondered about why no reference as far as I can tell to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). Above all, Bruder cites Bob Wells, who has a blog, a youtube channel, and a self-published guide titled: How to Live In a Car, Van or RV: And Get Out of Debt, Travel, and Find True Freedom. Wells founded a group event called Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona, and is a leader of the people whose lives feature in the book..
Several other books are mentioned in Nomadland including:
- "One guy at a Rubber Tramp Rendezvous campfire was horrified to learn I hadn’t yet read Travels with Charley [by John Steinbeck]; the next day he arrived at the van to lend me a paperback. Other entries in the literary canon of this subculture included Blue Highways by William Least Heat- Moon, Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed." (p. 162).
- "Positive thinking, after all, is an all-American coping mechanism, practically a national pastime. Author James Rorty noted this during the Great Depression, when he traveled America talking with people forced to seek work on the road. In his 1936 book, Where Life Is Better, he was dismayed that so many of his interview subjects seemed so unshakably cheerful." (p. 164).
- "Paul Bowles wrote a book called The Sheltering Sky. He described the difference between tourists and travelers.” (p. 204).
The author's well-meaning study of individuals who cope with their loss of material security by living out of mostly decrepit vans, campers, and even cars is well-done. But I didn't particularly enjoy reading about their suffering. For one thing, the chapters are kind of repetitive, and there's too much detail about the main subjects. But mostly, the book is just too sad!
Nomadland, The Movie
After writing the above book review, I watched the movie version. What a contrast! No wonder it won three Academy Awards, was nominated for 3 others, and won other awards as well. No wonder it was so popular!
The movie Nomadland is deeply emotional, while the book is in some ways cold. The script added fantastic and vivid memories told by the characters who in the book are somewhat two-dimensional. The magnificent scenery of the American West creates fabulous backgrounds for the characters' lives and their sadness. And of course Frances McDormand creates a remarkable and memorable character in her portrayal of Fern, especially at the end when she recites the Shakespeare sonnet.
Like the book, the movie is extremely depressing, with it's pitch-perfect capture of the aging nomadic individuals who inhabit vans and campers and say they are not homeless, just houseless. Most of them have lost everything they had worked for and are still working at whatever jobs they can find, notably at temp jobs in an Amazon warehouse, at a national forest service campground, or picking and packing sugar beets. They are clearly trying to find a way to deal with a diminished life, but it's hard and sad.
There were a few references to how these individuals who moved around and had little money managed to eat. Each of them organized some type of kitchen: Fern had a few of the plates that her father had bought her when she was a teenager; others had less. They clearly liked to eat, and shared with one another. At one point, Fern makes a sandwich to give to a young obviously troubled man which creates a connection between them. The collective spirit of these individualistic van-dwellers shows up especially in the occasional pot luck spread, including stew to which each contributes an ingredient, mac and cheese, potato salad, and the like. The get-together in Quartzsite particularly fostered sharing. I loved the way they were helping themselves and telling each other: "Have all you want."
Many of the characters in the movie are played by the actual people who were described in the book, rather than by actors. Notably was the role of Bob Wells, the leader of the van-dwellers, and Fern's friends Swankie and Dave. This makes it all the more fascinating.
I'm late to reading and watching Nomadland, and I'm glad I finally have done so.
This blog post © 2021 mae sander.