An economic downturn affects some people more than others. The recession and housing crash of the early 21st century caused many Americans to make difficult choices. Many owed more on their house than it was worth. They were forced to surrender their home to the bank and walk away. Others lost their job and could no longer afford to pay their rent. Stock market losses reduced or eliminated pensions. Older Americans were particularly hard hit. A significant minority of these people decided to abandon the idea of living in a traditional house and opt for a life on the road - living in a van or a mobile home.
Jessica Bruder's Nomadland is the story of those people.
These American nomads are not homeless - they are houseless; they have chosen a life on the road.
There are some advantages to this lifestyle, which is not dissimilar to being on a permanent camping trip. Many people have formed a support community, sometimes referring to themselves as a "Tribe" and folks in that community support one another. Facebook groups and in-person events exist to help them learn and connect with one another. This lifestyle allows individuals for more freedom to explore the country.
But there are many disadvantages. Most of these migrants work low-paying jobs without health insurance or retirement benefits. The workers put in long hours and find it difficult to accumulate savings. The work is often physically demanding - especially for older people. Additionally, society makes life difficult for transients. For example, local ordinances often restrict where one can park a camper and often forbid sleeping in a vehicle; most camp sites limit lengths of stay; and a permanent address is a requirement for a driver's license and for many other basic tasks. Many of these "workampers" work temporary seasonal jobs such as maintaining a campground, picking beets, or scanning package at an Amazon warehouses. As a result, they must travel frequently, moving to where they can find work.
Given these challenges, it is surprising how much optimism, hope, and positivity projected by those interviewed by Ms. Bruder. Time and again, the people to whom she introduces the reader show an impressive resiliency that helps them to survive.
Bruder focuses most of her attention on Linda - a divorced 60-something woman traveling the country in a mobile home. Linda has a dream of buying land and building an "Earthship" - a solar-powered home made of recycled materials. As Linda ages, her options to sustain herself lessen; but she perseveres, keeping her positive attitude intact.
Bruder even travels in a van of her own to get a firsthand taste of life on the road.
This is not the story of wealthy retirees touring the country for pleasure; it is the story of older Americans, who feel they have fewer choices to survive and have opted for this lifestyle. As Bruder puts it:
Bruder quotes Bob Wells, who writes about the houseless culture on his site https://www.cheaprvliving.com:
"At one time there was a social contract that if you played by the rules (went to school, got a job, and worked hard) everything would be fine. That’s no longer true today. You can do everything right, just the way society wants you to do it, and still end up broke, alone, and homeless."
Nomadland is the story of those who ended up that way and found a way to survive.