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

February 5, 2018 at 9:02 pm (Book review, books)

  This is not the kind of book I would ordinarily choose to read. My preference in nonfiction is for history, biography, and the arts: fact-rich tomes written in an accessible style. But the reviews of  Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland piqued my interest. And I found that once I started it, I didn’t want to put it down.

The eponymous nomads are, for the most part, retirees in their sixties and seventies who are having trouble making ends meet. So, in the time honored American tradition, they’ve hit the road.

Bruder spends a lot of time describing the ways and means by which this is done. Van dwellers predominate, but there are  some lucky enough to have procured regulation RV’s of various sizes. And there are some who are living in much smaller cramped quarters. The ways in which people are able to procure electricity and arrange plumbing – sometimes barely adequately – testify to their entirely admirable ingenuity. Their lives are testimony to the ability to make do  with less.

It turns out that there are work opportunities for these folks, most of whom still have the requisite strength and determination. They can be camp hosts at RV campgrounds. These are multifaceted jobs involving registering parties of campers, seeing to their safety and comfort, keeping the peace when necessary, and cleaning the facilities – yes, that includes toilets.

They can be part of Amazon’s CamperForce. These jobs ramp up seriously as Christmas approaches:

The Amazon CamperForce program brings together a community of enthusiastic RV’ers who help make the holidays bright for customers of Amazon.com. As a CamperForce Associate, you’ll begin this seasonal assignment in early Fall and work until December 23rd.

The program lasts 3-4 months in the winter, and your responsibilities will be in the areas of picking, packing, stowing, and receiving.

Some who are enthusiasts or creative types try selling their wares at gatherings like the fabled Rubber Tramp Rendezvous held – up until this year, at least – in Quartzsite, Arizona.  There are any number of ways to make money.   “Workampers” are endlessly resourceful; they have to be.

Rubber Tramp Rendezvous was founded by Bob Wells, whose site, CheapRVLiving, offers tips, encouragement, and helpful information to fellow van dwellers.   It also features an illuminating section on the philosophy that underpins the way of life that he and others have chosen to follow. Wells has in fact written a book on the subject:

Vandwellers – seemingly an umbrella term for all those inhabiting some kind of mobile living space – are sensitive about how they’re perceived by others.

In his book, Bob Wells draws a bright line between vandwellers and the homeless. He suggests vandwellers are conscientious objectors from a broken, corrupting social order. Whether or not they chose their lifestyle, they have embraced it.

Although Bruder encounters her fair share of hard luck stories, the vandwellers do seem to be by and large a cheerful lot, and not necessarily as ideologically motivated as the above passage might  suggest. Several people did state that they prefer to see themselves as “houseless” rather than “homeless.”

Bruder eventually comes to believe that she needs to get inside this subculture to fully understand it. So she buys a van and gets a gig at CamperForce. One of the first priorities Bruder needed to satisfy was the naming her newly acquired vehicle. Vandwellers all do  this, and they try to be creative about it:

In my encounters with vandwellers I’d already met Vansion, Van Go, DonoVan, Vantucket, and Vann White–this was a pun-happy subculture.

Her own final choice was ‘Halen.’ I had to ponder this for a couple of minutes before the nickel dropped.

Van Halen the rock group

 

Van Halen the van, with the author atop

Naturally, I was interested to know what reading matter was favored by the vandwellers. Here are some of the titles mentioned in the book:

 

I’ve read Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille and loved it. This is a book that more people need to know about. And I was really pleased to know that people were reading Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s paean to the glorious Southwest. Last month, in an article in the New York Times Book Review, historian Douglas Brinkley sang its praises and urged President Donald Trump to read it.

Bruder’s narrative is framed by the presence one particular vandweller whom she comes to know well. This is Linda May, 63. Linda’s story is very engrossing; through her eyes, we get to know other members of this set, and to participate in what is a surprisingly lively social scene. (There are some individuals who self-identify as introverts and tend to camp a bit distantly from the group. No matter – if they need help, it will be there quickly.)

Linda’s ultimate aspiration is to build herself an Earthship House and retire from workamping.. I really want this dream to come true for her.

Linda May and Coco

Jessica Bruder’s writing is lively and engaging. I fairly zipped through Nomadland. At 251 pages, it’s a fast read, but I was sorry when it was over.

Highly recommended.

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