Immersing herself, Bruder moved into a van that she named “Van Halen.”

One of America’s most enduring promises, real or mythical, is that if your situation goes south, there’s always the road. Tied to inexhaustible American optimism (that some have always called naïve) is the instinct to try again somewhere else. Load up the horse, Conestoga wagon or RV, drive for long enough (preferably west), and you’re bound to find something better eventually. Or so the story goes.

In Nomadland, journalist Jessica Bruder ’00 documents the newest generation of American nomad, many of whom are in their sixth, seventh or eighth decade of life, forced to take to the roads in order to survive the new American economy. The new generation, however, isn’t using the road to find a new home. Instead, the road is their home. Calling themselves “vandwellers,” or “rubber tramps,” or even “houseless” (but never homeless), these modern nomads live in their vehicles—RVs, or school buses, or converted vans, or tiny trailers towed from seasonal job to seasonal job. (Or even, in at least one case, a Prius.) As Bruder writes, “People who never imagined being nomads … are giving up traditional houses and apartments to live in what some call ‘wheel estate.’” These new nomads “are driving away from the impossible choices that face what used to be the middle class.”

This is diligent, humane, fundamentally decent journalism, and it never gawks.

Bruder structures her book around the charming and indefatigable Linda May, 64 years old when we meet her en route to seasonal work as a “camp host” at a California state park. Linda lives in the “Squeeze Inn,” a fiberglass trailer she tows behind her salvaged Jeep Grand Cherokee, and she dreams of one day building a self-sustaining home off the grid to live out her years.

Linda is a “workamper”—someone whose term of employment includes a free berth or campsite for a motorized home. It’s a word that cheerily elides the galling unfairness of her condition. Bruder writes: “Workampers ride a national circuit of jobs extending coast to coast and up into Canada, a shadow economy created by hundreds of employers posting classified ads on websites with names like Workers on Wheels and Workamper News. Depending on the time of year, nomads are sought to pick raspberries in Vermont, apples in Washington, and blueberries in Kentucky. They give tours at fish hatcheries, take tickets at NASCAR races, and guard the gates of Texas oil fields.”

 

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century By Jessica Bruder ’00. W.W. Norton

In order to truly understand how Linda and those like her live, Bruder immerses herself entirely, and sets out in a livable van that she names “Van Halen.” In Van Halen, she travels to work at a sugar beet processing plant in North Dakota and a massive Amazon warehouse in Texas, where many of the gray-haired vandwellers are what was once briefly called “retirement age.” The Orwellian instructors at the latter facility claim to value the “Eisenhower-Era work ethic” of these older workers—and make no mention of the large tax break the company receives for employing the elderly.

This is diligent, humane, fundamentally decent journalism, and never gawks. Bruder does not put the vandwellers on display so much as she amplifies their stories. She never impinges on their dignity.

And in fact, in these visions of collaborative ingenuity, of bands of people overcoming adversity with good cheer under harsh conditions, might one come away with a positive outlook on this new paradigm? Bruder understands the temptation: “Around a shared campfire, in the middle of the night, it can feel like a glimpse of utopia.” But by the end of the book, she hasn’t been fooled, and neither should we be. The story that she has told here is as much one of the failing of society as it is the triumph of human resilience.


Mancusi’s debut novel will be published in 2019 by Hanover Square Press.  


Photo credit: Swankie Wheels